Memorial Spaceflights


Donald Edward Nelson

"Navigator to the Stars"
1935 - 2000

Donald Edward Nelson, raised in the American Heartland, looked beyond the small town of his birth and yearned for adventure.

Born November 3, 1935 in DeKalb, Illinois, Don cultivated an ardent interest in geography and travel. These dual passions guided his life, fueled a 40-year career in navigation, delivered rich experiences, and fostered lifelong friendships around the world.

He graduated with honors from Northern Illinois University in 1957 and joined the U.S. Navy. Trained as a navigator and flight crew member, he flew countless missions navigating anti-submarine patrols. He also spent a year as a Navy ROTC instructor at the University of California at Berkley, a fascinating place to be in uniform during the late '60s.

California quickly became Don's adopted home; he liked its climate, its diversity and its stimulating people. He resigned his commission in 1967, transferred to the Navy Reserves, and began a second career as a navigator for civilian airlines. A professional highlight came in 1972 when his flight crew shuttled government equipment to China preceding then President Richard Nixon's historic visit.

The advent of new positioning technologies 30 years ago forever altered Don's path. As black boxes began to replace his skills set at large airlines, Don turned to smaller airlines to remain in flight. Despite this setback, Don remained adamant that his flying career represented his "salad days." He became one of the world's last flying navigators.

In the '70s, Don worked for NASA's Ames Research Center developing flight plans for NASA's most advanced research aircraft. His flight plans sent NASA's best and brightest along paths that led to many exciting discoveries in space, earth sciences, and even archeology. Don thrived in this environment of co-workers who shared his love of flight and curiosity for the unknown. Though happy to have a job that tapped his unique navigational talents, he yearned for more flight time. He returned to commercial airlines, augmenting the flight time with weekend drills in the Air Force Reserves. Don retired in the mid-'90s as a lieutenant colonel.

In the late '80s Don worked with McDonnell Douglas and Chrysler Aerospace on government contracts developing war games. The job was considered glamorous, but Don viewed his work -- keeping air crews trained -- as a valuable service to his country. He retired from aviation in the late '90s.

Don was a people person. A prodigious correspondent, he welcomed guests and gladly guided tours. His circle of friends grew geometrically as one met another and formed new connections. The churches in which Don was involved greatly appreciated his organizational acumen and his ability to blend people with organizations.

As a child, Don excelled at sports. As an adult, he was a devoted fan of basketball, baseball and football, especially when viewed in convivial surroundings. He often timed his visits to friends around the country to catch a St. Louis Cardinals game and sometimes followed his teams to spring training camps.

Don passed suddenly on January 28, 2000, four weeks after having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Among his last words were these: "The good times don't last forever." Though Don never married and had no living family, he is survived by a family of devoted friends who will never forget the light he brought into their lives, his limitless energy, laughter, friendship, and good nature.

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