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Retired astronaut and Divide resident Dale Gardner dies at age 65; funeral Tuesday

By Carol McGraw Updated: February 25, 2014 at 8:00 am

They called him the astronaut who captured a satellite.

NASA astronaut and Divide resident Dale Allan Gardner, who died Feb. 19 of a brain aneurysm at age 65, was not only gutsy, but not afraid to show a little humor in his work.

There is a famous photo of him in space, heavy jet pack on his back, holding up a handwritten "for sale" sign - a comical reference to what he was doing that day in 1984: retrieving two malfunctioning satellites to return them to earth.

Another historic photo, both scary and magnificent, shows him in space looking like a David against Goliath as he attached a control device on one of the behemoth broken satellites so he could get into the cargo bay of the space shuttle Discovery.

Gardner was one of only a handful of astronauts to ever use a jet pack, or manned maneuver unit, as they were called. It used nitrogen to propel him from the shuttle to the satellite and back. He flew on two flights, the Discovery and the Challenger, and logged 337 hours in space and 225 orbits of earth.

But Gardner was more than the iconic astronaut, say those who know him. He was a down-to-earth sort of guy who liked to encouraging kids to follow their dreams.

"Dale Gardner was an astronaut's astronaut - quiet, humble and always supremely confident, focused and prepared," Elliot Pulham, chief executive officer of the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation, said in an email.

Pulham said Gardner's satellite rescues "were dramatic and heroic demonstrations of the 'right stuff,' yet he'll be remembered for his gentle charm and understated sense of humor."

Tracey Tomme, executive director of the Colorado Springs-based Colorado Consortium for Earth Based Science Education, said Gardner often visited its Challenger Learning Center of Colorado.

"He was good at talking to all students, not just the ones interested in science," Tomme said. "His message was that if they worked hard and had values and goals and stayed focused, they would succeed."

Gardner also helped with the consortium's professional development, keeping the staff apprised of new technology.

Tomme remembers one tour to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, where Gardner worked at the time.

"He was able to take complicated subjects and make them understandable for the average person," she said. "He was very passionate about many things, and shared that energy with everyone."

Gardner was born in Fairmont, Minn. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering physics, he joined the U.S. Navy, graduating from Aviation Officer Candidate School with the highest academic average ever achieved in the history of the squadron. Later, at the Navy Technical Center, he was chosen a Distinguished Naval graduate and received his wings in 1971. He was involved in the testing of the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, and served on the USS Enterprise and at the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron at Point Magu, Calif., where he tested and evaluated Navy fighter aircraft, according to his NASA biography.

NASA selected him to be an astronaut in 1978. He was the astronaut project manager for the shuttle's on-board computer software in 1981 leading up to the first flight of the shuttle.

After his space missions in 1983 and 1984, he was scheduled to fly another mission, but it was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986.

He retired from NASA that year and resumed Navy duties with the U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs. After retiring from the Navy in 1990, he worked in Colorado Springs for TRW and Northrup Grumman, and later at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

He retired in January 2013; he and his wife lived in Divide.

Gardner's funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church, 210 E. Bijou St., followed by a reception. Burial will be at Evergreen Cemetery.

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