Naval Aviator, Astronaut, Businessman
Dale Gardner was one of only six Space Shuttle astronauts to fly the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) propulsion backpack. On Discovery’s STS-51A mission in November 1984, he flew untethered to capture the errant Westar 6 communications satellite and steer it back into the orbiter for return to Earth. His crewmate Joe Allen retrieved another communications satellite, Indonesia’s Palapa B-2, the same way. Allen flew the MMU that is displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Discovery; Gardner flew an identical one that remains at Johnson Space Center.
Both Allen and Gardner captured their assigned satellites using a “stinger” device (a training mockup is in the stored collection), and then used the MMU to stop each satellite’s slow rotation and hand it off to the Remote Manipulator System arm operated by Anna Fisher. That part of the job went as planned, but latching the nine feet long by seven feet wide, 4,400 kg (9,600-pound) cylindrical satellites into the payload bay proved to be much harder than anticipated due to a slight hardware misfit. The crew reverted to “Plan B” and literally manhandled the two satellites into place. Allen credited Gardner with quick thinking and directing Plan B.
Gardner was the spacewalking astronaut holding a For Sale sign in a humorous photo taken at the end of this salvage task. This mission marked the first retrieval of satellites from space for return to their owners, avoiding a complete loss of insured property. The Westar was refurbished and later re-launched, proving the value of this new ability.
Before the retrieval effort, the STS-51A crew successfully deployed two other communications satellites. This freed room in the payload bay to bring Palapa and Westar home, and also gave the crew bragging rights for the first (and only) “Two Up, Two Down” satellite deployment and retrieval mission.
Gardner entered the astronaut corps as a mission specialist in 1978 after serving in the U.S. Navy as an aviator and project manager assigned to the F-14 Tomcat development. He was a member of the first operational F-14 Tomcat squadron and served two tours on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. He logged over 2,000 hours flying time in more than 20 different aircraft.
Gardner also flew on Challenger (STS-8 in 1983) along with the first African American astronaut on the first shuttle mission to launch and land at night. In both flights, he logged a total of 337 hours (14 days) in space, 12 hours in two spacewalks, and more than an hour in the MMU.
During the almost-three-year pause in shuttle missions after the 1986 Challenger tragedy, his next assigned flight was cancelled. Gardner returned to active duty in the Navy, serving in the U.S. Space Command and holding senior positions in Space Control. In 1990 he moved on to a career in the aerospace industry and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, from which he retired in 2013.
Valerie Neal is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.