Our country lost an American hero this past weekend. Winona’s own astronaut, Donald Peterson, mission specialist on the maiden Challenger voyage in 1983, passed away Sunday at the age of 84 in his Texas home.
I was lucky enough to get to know Peterson since moving to Winona 11 years ago. Not only was Peterson a longtime subscriber to The Winona Times to keep up with his friends and family in Winona, he also submitted a guest column, “Spaceship Earth,” which printed in July 2014.
Also, I was lucky enough to get to speak with him at length in preparation for an article which printed in our 2011 Crossroads Magazine. Not long after the article printed, Peterson visited Winona, and I was invited to dine with him and some his friends still living in town.
When I finally met Peterson in person, my first impression was that he was somewhat shy and soft-spoken, although he had no problem opening up to me about his memories from Winona or his days at NASA during our hour-long telephone call. In thinking back to that day many years ago, I think he was almost overwhelmed by the enthusiastic and warm reception he received when he returned to Winona. He didn’t seem to me like someone who relished being the center of attention.
However, Peterson seemed happy to be home and genuinely thrilled to spend time with his old friends.
Winona, after all, had a huge impact on Peterson’s life. During my interview with him, Peterson remembered growing up during the throws of World War II, when patriotism was great, and small town America was still wholesome and isolated from the dangers of the outside world.
He remembered his own heroes growing up. A neighbor, Joe Glenn, Jr., who served as a fighter pilot in World War II.
“He was a fighter pilot,” Peterson remembered. “He was handsome, and he married a beautiful girl. He always spent time with us kids, and that was a joy.”
Ruth Smith and M.L. Branch were both teachers at Winona High School, who left a remarkable impact on Peterson and his future. Smith taught him mathematics, and because she took time to work with Peterson on the rudiments of calculus, it helped him excel as he moved on from high school to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Peterson said Branch, his English teacher and debate coach, was almost a second mother to him.
Peterson said he also admired Winona football coaches Johnny Bruce and Chuck Thomas, although he said he wasn’t much of an athlete.
“Nowadays, I would be considered a nerd,” Peterson said.
Peterson was a good student, and his hard work led to an appointment at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Following graduation from West Point, Peterson joined the United States Air Force. He soon was accepted to the Air Force Institute of Technology to become a nuclear engineer, with hopes to work to on a project to create a nuclear airplane, but that project was soon canceled. Looking at his next opportunity, Peterson volunteered to go to Aerospace Research Pilot School Edwards Airforce Base, and from there, he landed at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he worked in Guidance, Navigation, and Control in the development and construction of the space shuttle.
After the first space shuttle, Columbia, took flight in 1981, NASA launched several other successful flights, and Peterson worked on the technical side to prepare the shuttle for mission. Then in 1983, at the age of 52, Peterson got his shot to fly as a mission specialist on the maiden voyage of the Challenger shuttle.
For five days and 23 minutes, Peterson traveled at 18,000 miles an hour, orbiting the earth. He also got to do a spacewalk.
Donald Peterson was and will always be an American hero -- not just as an astronaut but as a pioneer in space exploration and the development of the shuttle and the space station, all of which he worked on while with NASA.
For Winona, he is a favorite son, a classmate, and a friend to many still living here.
For the young people of Winona, Peterson is a role model. The city and its residents greatly impacted Peterson’s life, as did his teachers at Winona schools. Donald Peterson was just another child riding his bike on Winona’s streets, another student seeking extra help in calculus, another neighbor child idolizing the war hero next door.
What sets Peterson apart is that he worked hard – in school, in the Air Force, in the field of aerospace, and that hard work earned him a flight among the stars.