SAVANNA – The organizers of a dedication ceremony for the Dale Gardner Veterans Memorial Bridge weren’t about to let anything stop them from celebrating the new bridge that spans the Mighty Mississippi and connects the Land of Lincoln with The Hawkeye State.
Not even the fact that the bridge they were celebrating isn’t open yet.
Three days of activities that started Friday were capped off Sunday when local luminaries, family members of the bridge’s namesake, former astronauts, state Rep. Tony McCombie, and others joined Gov. Bruce Rauner to dedicate the $81 million bridge that opened in November but closed in February due to safety issues with an attached causeway.
But the real stars of the show were the veterans the bridge honors, one of whom who couldn’t be there, but who knew a thing or two about stars during his lifetime. After all, he came closer to them than just about everyone gathered for the occasion: the man the bridge was named for, Dale Allan Gardner.
Gardner, who was born in Minnesota, is a Class of 1966 Savanna Community High School graduate and Navy veteran who joined NASA and logged 337 hours in space, orbiting the Earth 225 times. He died Feb. 19, 2014.
According to his NASA biography, the space administration selected him to be an astronaut candidate in January 1978. By August 1979, he had completed a 1-year training and evaluation period that made him eligible for assignment as a mission specialist astronaut. He had a hand in the early days of the space shuttle program, serving as the astronaut project manager for the flight software in the shuttle’s on-board computers leading up to its historic first launch in April 1981. He also served as a support crew astronaut for the shuttle’s fourth flight.
In 1983, Gardener left the Earth for the first time as a mission specialist from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, 1983. A little over a year later, he was in space again, from Nov. 8 to 16, 1984. He also was scheduled to be a member of the first shuttle mission to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California into a polar orbit, but the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion on Jan. 28, 1986 scuttled that mission.
Gardner retired from the Navy in 1990.
As for the bridge that carries his name, its mission to carry traffic across the river has been hampered by delays stemming from a 350-foot causeway just east of Sabula, Iowa. A 50-foot section of it collapsed, leaving the Iowa Department of Transportation scrambling to repair it. The bridge’s opening has been pushed back more than once and the latest timetable has it being ready for traffic by Labor Day.
In the meantime, The Iowa Department of Transportation established a ferry service between Savanna and Sabula to ease the 36-mile detour commuters have been forced to contend with as work continues on the causeway.
Over the weekend though, the bridge’s delays took a back seat as residents celebrated not only the bridge, but Gardener and his fellow astronauts, two of whom were part of the dedication weekend. Robert L. Stewart and Daniel C. Brandenstein joined the celebration and gave a free program, “Being an Astronaut,” at West Carroll High School. Between them, the two men have logged more than 12,000 hours of flight time and more than 1,000 hours in space.
Other activities included a traveling NASA exhibit, veterans parade and a veterans memorial service.
The new bridge may be in a holding pattern, but as for the people who organized the weekend festivities to honor the man it’s named for and his fellow veterans, their mission was more than accomplished.