The Man Who’s Flown Everything
Robert “Hoot” Gibson’s priorities: (1) Fly. (2) Fly some more.
- By Robin White
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
(Page 3 of 6)
We left the F-14 and made our way to the Museum's space hangar, where the shuttle Enterprise reigns. "The shuttle doesn't fly like anything else," said Gibson. "The control surfaces are huge. When you move them, you reduce your wing area, so, at first, pulling up makes you sink. Pushing over makes you sink faster. Pulsing the stick gets you into serious trouble. Below a certain altitude, every input you make is going to be wrong."
Gibson was picked to serve as pilot for a 1984 Challenger mission. The flight marked the first untethered spacewalk, and the first shuttle landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, instead of Edwards Air Force Base in California. Gibson's next mission would be as Columbia's commander. Once in orbit, bad weather at various landing sites kept the crew up longer than scheduled. The launch of the next shuttle, Challenger, was pushed back to January 28, 1986, a morning that dawned very cold.
"I was doing a debriefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston," Gibson recalled. "The launch looked perfect." But at T-plus-73 seconds, a stiff, cold-soaked O-ring in the right solid booster failed. A flare of gas burned through to the external fuel tank.
"I kept staring at the television," said Gibson. "It took a couple of minutes before I realized that I had just watched my friends perish. Mike Smith was my instructor at test pilot school. Ellison Onizuka was my office mate for four years, Dick Scobee and Judy Resnik were both in my astronaut class. I flew my first spaceflight with Ron McNair. I'd lost friends before in aviation, but never so many all at once."
Gibson next commanded a classified military mission, STS-27, to carry a surveillance satellite into orbit. Atlantis lifted off on December 2, 1988, at just after 9:30 a.m. But at T-plus-85 seconds, part of the nose cap on the right-hand solid booster broke loose and shattered against the orbiter's wing.
"Dave Hilmers, our CAPCOM [capsule communicator], called up and told us they'd seen something fall away from the vehicle," recalled Gibson. "It probably was no big deal but we ought to take a look. Luckily, Atlantis had the remote arm in the cargo bay. We used the camera on it to look around." The bottom of the wing looked like it had taken multiple shotgun blasts, the thermal tiles showing white scrapes and dark, jagged holes. Gibson relayed the images to Houston. Because STS-27 was a military flight, the data were encrypted, the pictures low-resolution.
"The engineers came back and said it didn't look any worse than they'd seen on previous missions," said Gibson. "Well, I'd been with the shuttle program from the start…. I knew for a fact there'd been nothing like this before."
Reentry heat topped 3,000 degrees. The aluminum under the shuttle's tiles melted at 1,000. But reentry was four days away, and the crew focused on deploying the satellite, trying not to think about the orbiter's damaged belly glowing white-hot at Mach 25.