SEATTLE - With five space shuttle missions to her credit, Sunnyside native Bonnie Dunbar is a veteran at shuttle landings.
Now she's aiming to land a retired shuttle for the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Dunbar is the museum's CEO and this summer oversaw groundbreaking on a new Space Gallery set to open July 2011.
"What is driving our work is that we have to have a building in place by then that can house a space shuttle," Dunbar told the Daily Sun News.
She says there are three space shuttles that will up for grabs next year when the Obama administration retires the program. The Museum of Flight is one of 20 locations around the country that has applied to receive a shuttle.
An enclosed facility like the $12 million Space Gallery and a commitment to education are two of the requirements for the museum to receive a shuttle. Dunbar says most of the money for the gallery is coming from private donations.
Two of the shuttles to be mothballed next year, Atlantis and Endeavor, carried Dunbar into space.
Dunbar says she's not playing favorites, though, she just wants to secure a shuttle for Seattle and the West Coast.
"The shuttle's history is unique in that it is re-usable. It's the only vehicle that brings cargo back to Earth," she said. "Hopefully (having a shuttle here) will have a big impact on education. If we hope to be competitive as a nation in the future we need to be setting high goals."
The goal, Dunbar says, is for space travel to attract a new generation of children to math and science study, much as it did her when she was a girl growing up in Outlook.
She says the plan is to build a curriculum around the shuttle exhibit for K-12 students "to inspire other kids like I was by the space program."
The curriculum would be in addition to that which the museum already has in place, including a distance learning program.
"We have the largest K-12 education program in an aerospace museum in the country," Dunbar says of the non-profit Museum of Flight. "We've had buses of kids, some from Sunnyside, come through our aviation learning center."
Dunbar says locating a shuttle in this state will also do great things for tourism, attracting visitors from throughout the region. "Tourism is our fourth largest industry in Washington state, so this (the shuttle) would be an extremely big boost."
Dunbar said the decision on the final resting places for the three shuttles will be made by the Obama administration.
Dunbar and the Museum of Flight recently learned the shuttle decision will be delayed because there is consideration of funding a shuttle flight next year.
That means if the museum gets a shuttle it might not be in place in time for the Space Gallery's opening next July.
Dunbar said there is a "Plan B" in place if the shuttle does not come to Seattle or if it is delayed.
"We are first in line for some simulators, crew training aids from the Johnson Space Center," Dunbar said. The focus is on immersing museum visitors into space exploration, she says.
Other exhibits planned for the space gallery include a space shuttle landing simulator. "It will be multi-sensory, the whole space experience," Dunbar says.
The Space Gallery experience will also feature virtual tours of the space shuttle, a crew training simulator and a simulate space lab observation window.
While excited about the prospects of bringing a space shuttle to Washington state, Dunbar has mixed feelings about shuttles less than halfway through their intended lifespan. With the Obama administration looking to cut manned space travel from the next budget, Dunbar said it is sad to see the U.S. lag behind other countries.
"Throughout human history great nations explore," she said. With NASA's budget already low - about the price of one pizza per year per person in the U.S. - Dunbar said China and Russia are catching the U.S. in space technology.
"We spend as much on pizza as we do on human flight and technology," she said. "If we're not careful this complacency will make it (U.S. leadership in space exploration) go away."
After proposed budget cuts, the U.S. will have to hitch a ride with Russia if it wants to put another person in space. Even worse, says Dunbar, the U.S. won't be able to bring its research back to Earth.
"It's up to the American people," Dunbar said of maintaining a space program, which has provided the country with technology ranging from computers to velcro. "They need to be expressing their opinion to the elected officials."
She hopes the museum's Space Gallery can play a part in reviving interest and curiosity about space travel.
Meanwhile, Dunbar says she tries to stay connected to Sunnyside through friends and family who live here.
She encourages Sunnyside youth to not give up on their quest of an education.
"Just a note to all those kids to stay in school," Dunbar said. "They can be anything they want if they graduate."
- John Fannin can be reached at 837-4500 or at firstname.lastname@example.org