Astronaut Donald H. Peterson, a native of Winona, died Sunday at his home in El Lago, Texas.
Peterson, who was 84 at the time of his death, served as a mission specialist on the inaugural voyage of the Challenger shuttle in 1983.
For five days and 23 minutes, Peterson traveled at 18,000 miles an hour, orbiting the earth. The mission of the voyage was to launch tracking and data relay satellites which provide communications between objects in orbit and those on the ground. In the process, he got to do a spacewalk to test the team’s ability to repair the shuttle while it orbited 170 miles above the earth.
In a 2011 interview with The Winona Times, Peterson said he never experienced problems in working in zero gravity.
“We worked in space suits so we could work outside the spacecraft in a vacuum,” Peterson said. “The suits have to be pressurized because most people live at sea level. If you suddenly take that pressure away, the nitrogen in the body would literally explode.”
According to a 2002 interview for a Nasa Oral History, Peterson and Mission Specialist Story Musgrave were able to work outside the shuttle for four hours without being tethered to the vehicle. The two wore special backpacks that allowed them more mobility than in past spacewalks.
Peterson was born in Winona on October 22, 1933, to Pete and Mabel Peterson and was raised in a house on Summit Street.
He graduated from Winona High School, and upon graduation, he was selected by then-Congressman Joe Abernathy to take the entrance exam to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Peterson said he did so well on the exam, Abernathy “wrangled me” an appointment to West Point.
After completing the military academy, Peterson joined the U.S. Air Force and was accepted to the Air Force Institute of Technology to work on a program developing nuclear automobiles. After the program was canceled, Peterson volunteered to go to the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base.
“I wanted to get back into test flying and airplane development,” Peterson said in 2011.
After he graduated from the Aerospace Research Pilot School, he was assigned to the Mann Orbiting Laboratory, a program that was trying to develop spacecraft to fly over countries to take pictures, however, the program was eventually canceled.
In 1970, Peterson was reassigned to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he worked in Guidance, Navigation, and Control in the development and construction of the space shuttle. In 1981, the shuttle Columbia took flight, and from then, NASA launched several other successful flights.
Peterson said, “There was an expectation that everyone in the astronaut office would get a flight. I waited a long time. I was 52 years old when I flew.”
Peterson resigned from NASA in 1984 and began a consulting business.
Peterson was preceded in death by his wife, Bonnie, of nearly 60 years.
He is survived by brother; Gil Peterson; children Donald Peterson, Jr., daughters, Jean Stone and Shari Peterson; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held today at 11 a.m. at Crowder Funeral Home in Webster, Texas.