Astronaut, former Sherburn resident, dies

SHERBURN – The former astronaut with ties to Sherburn, Dale Gardner, passed away suddenly last week in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the age of 65.

Gardner was born Nov. 8, 1948, in Fairmont and spent part of his childhood in Sherburn. Tom Boehne, a first-cousin of Gardner, remembers when Gardner spent time with his family on their farm in rural western Martin County.

“He was a town kid, I was a farm kid,” Boehne recalled. “But we found similar forms of entertainment. … There was a time we built a raft. Our farm bordered a lake, so we took these old telephone poles that were on our grampa’s farm, and these old 2-by-12 planks. When we put it in the water it was barely an inch above the water. Then the next time it was just below the water, so when we were on it, it looked like we were walking on water.”

Gardner’s family moved from Sherburn, and he went on to graduate as valedictorian from Savanna Community High School.

Gardner received his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Illinois and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1970. Eight years later he was recruited by NASA.

Gardner went on two space flights in 1983 and 1984. He made history when he used a manned maneuvering unit as he worked to return two malfunctioning satellites to Earth.

“There was a story he like to tell about being in orbit and circling the Earth,” Boehne said. “He said that as they orbited, they could see Earth, and at one point he was just watching out the window and eating these M&Ms he had. Then suddenly, there were things hitting him in the head. The M&Ms had floated out of the package and were hitting him in the head. They were bouncing all over the place.”

One of Gardner’s famous moments showed his dry sense of humor, according to Boehne.

“He held up the ‘For Sale’ sign after getting one of the malfunctioning satellites,” he said.

While Gardner had moved away well before he became an astronaut, the town of Sherburn always claimed Gardner as one of its own. For nearly 20 years, one of the attractions of Sherburn was the Dale Gardner Space Museum.

“It was Dale Schumann’s dream; he was into space when he was a kid, and when he learned that Dale Gardner had lived here, that was it,” said Jean Burkhardt, one of the former Space Museum board members.

The Dale A. Gardner Space Museum in Sherburn opened in 1989 and was a favorite school field trip for many local schools.

“We had a spacesuit from one of the missions on display,” Burkhardt said. “There were several items that he donated to the museum for us.”

The museum was forced to close in 2004.

“It’s hard in a small town to keep these organizations going,” Burkhardt said. “It’s not like when there’s one project to complete, people donate and it’s done. When it’s ongoing, it gets tough. … We had a house that was donated to the museum, and by renting it out, it financed it for awhile. But then one year there was flooding and the house was severely damaged. It cost more than it was worth to repair, so it ended up being demolished. That was heartbreaking.”

When Gardner left NASA, he relocated to Colorado Springs and retired in 2013.

“It’d been several years since I saw him,” Boehne said. “The last time we were all together was in 2002, for my mother’s funeral. (Gardner) made the effort to come all the way from Colorado Springs to Ceylon for the funeral. That’s the kind of guy he was. His serious exterior demeanor you see in his NASA portrait did not reflect the guy he was inside.”