Honoring Hoot - Aerospace Appreciation Night Focuses on Former Astronaut
Former NASA astronaut Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
Though he has not been inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame or played professional baseball, he has been chosen for a hall of fame and honored at a baseball game. Gibson became a member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Lancaster JetHawks Single A Advanced California League celebrated his achievements during the team's annual Aerospace Appreciation Night Aug. 14.
In addition to a barbecue and some fun prior to the game (for Dryden employees who purchased tickets), the JetHawks offered a bobble head figure of Gibson piloting a space shuttle to early arriving fans. To top off the event, the JetHawks also won the baseball game against the Inland Empire 66ers.
Gibson was aboard five space shuttle missions as pilot or commander, was the top student in his "Top Gun" U.S. Navy fighter graduating class, flew commercial airliners and is an air race pilot. In addition, he also holds or has held three spaceflight world records and six aircraft records.
He has accumulated more than 13,000 flight hours in more than 111 types of civil and military aircraft. He also has airline transport pilot, multi-engine and instrument ratings, and became a private pilot when he was 17.
During a presentation at Dryden Aug. 13, he recalled some of his adventures and answered questions about the space shuttles, space travel and key elements of his career.
A picture from space showing Edwards Air Force Base and Dryden was his opening slide. "I always had a warm spot in my heart for Edwards and Dryden," he said. "It has been such a thrill for me to come back here."
Gibson is familiar with Dryden after having completed several of his space shuttle missions with an Edwards landing and assistance from Dryden staff. His first experience at the center was in 1968 when, as a summer student-engineering assistant, he calculating aerodynamic loads on the X-24A from its captive-carry flights and compared flight data from the HL-10 glide flights to wind-tunnel research.
During Gibson's first space shuttle mission, former astronaut and Dryden manager Vance Brand was the commander. The mission included the first landing at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Brand also was at Dryden Aug. 13 to support his former colleague and answer a few questions.
Brand and Gibson have a number of things in common, including their involvement with U.S./Russian rendezvous in space. Brand was a part of the Apollo Soyuz mission in 1975, which was the first time the Russians and Americans met in space. Twenty years later, in June 1995, Gibson was the commander of the Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-71 mission, which marked the first space shuttle docking with the Russian Space Station Mir.
During Gibson's mission a fresh crew replaced the one aboard the Mir. Atlantis was modified to carry a docking system compatible with the Russian Mir Space Station. It also carried a Spacelab module in the payload bay in which the crew performed a number of life sciences experiments and recorded valuable information from those investigations.
Gibson went to Russia twice to train for the mission over about a year and a half. He recalled the uncertainty of what it would be like working with former adversaries. The mission included six Americans and four Russians.
"After all those years of being a Cold Warrior and training as a Navy fighter pilot to shoot down and kill Russian fighter pilots, I was sitting between two Russians fighter pilots, who had been trained to shoot down and kill me, too. Now I [had] to pretend that I like[d] them," he said.
"I found out, as you might expect, when you get to work with people, you find out we're all the same. It was a wonderful experience to work with all of these guys who had very much been adversaries."
Gibson recalled his fondest memory was of the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino, Russia, which is roughly the equivalent of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The museum featured every Russian military aircraft ever built and was stunning, he recalled.
He said he learned one phrase in Russian that helped ease tensions and show an attempt at learning the language: 'I speak Russian very badly and I understand nothing.' "To this day, I can carry on a very poor conversation in Russian."
The docking mission was complex.
"This was the very first time a space shuttle had docked with anything and I had to fly Atlantis to this end with a module called Kristall. This was a fascinating piloting challenge because what I am doing is flying Atlantis manually, and I have to fly our docking ring up and into contact with the docking ring on Mir.
They told me, 'Okay, Hoot, you can fly sloppy; you just have to line them up within two inches. No pressure now, but 5 billion people will be watching you do that on television,'" he recalled.
Gibson had practiced 100 times in a simulator and it went well, he added.
More than 400 items were moved to the Mir from the shuttle payload bay, which is large enough to carry one and a half buses, on that mission. Gibson's handshake with Mission Commander Vladimir Dezhurov was deemed by then U.S. President Bill Clinton as a key event marking the end of the Cold War.
Shuttle missions are always interesting, but the launch was an especially exciting event, he said.
"It takes 30 seconds to go supersonic, accelerating straight up. It's like a catapult shot from a carrier, but it takes eight and a half minutes. It's an exciting ride. Booster separation looks like a train wreck and we fire the explosive bolts that are holding the boosters to us. Rocket thrusters take [the solid rocket boosters] away from us so we don't re-contact them. You are 30 miles up and 30 miles out over the Atlantic and going 4,000 miles per hour in two minutes. It's better than any Corvette ride."
He also relayed what a shuttle flight re-entry to Earth was like: "It's fire and flame for 15 minutes and then we return as a 100-ton glider," he said.
Also of note, the crew on Gibson's second space shuttle mission included NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
Gibson is the recipient of numerous international aviation medals, the Experimental Aircraft Association "Freedom of Flight" Award; the Defense Superior Service Medal; the Distinguished Flying Cross; three Air Medals; the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat "V"; a Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Humanitarian Service Medal; and a Vietnam Campaign Medal.
He continues a strong presence in aerospace by racing in his aircraft, "Riff Raff," a modified Hawker Sea Fury, at the annual Reno, Nev., air races. Regardless of Gibson's achievements, he remains active in aeronautics and has fond memories of his work at Dryden and Edwards Air Force Base.
By Jay Levine