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 4 of 6)
"We didn't know if Houston really thought we were okay," remembers crew member Mike Mullane, "or if they knew the situation was hopeless and just didn't want us to panic. But we knew what we'd seen, and Hoot was seriously ticked off that mission control wasn't listening to him. Things got pretty quiet up there."
Gibson felt that if something bad was going to happen to Atlantis, Houston was going to know why. If the right wing started to burn up, he said, "the first sign would be a 'split' in the elevons as the controls tried to hold attitude against increased drag: If they differed left to right by more than two degrees, I was going to get on the mike and tell Houston exactly what I thought of their assessment. I figured I had 30 seconds. It wouldn't help us, but it might save a future shuttle crew."
Reentry began. Gibson kept his eyes on the elevons. The shuttle entered the region of maximum thermal stress. The elevons remained in synch; the wing stayed intact. Gibson brought the orbiter in for an exceptionally smooth touchdown at Edwards.
"When we got out, we saw a bunch of engineers gathered under our wing. They were shaking their heads. The damage was massive. A whole tile was missing where the L-band antenna was mounted. There was a thicker skin panel there, and the metal had partly melted. If we'd lost a tile anywhere else, it would have burned through and we'd be dead.
"We should have developed an on-orbit patch kit right after STS-27, but NASA was playing Russian Roulette, hoping nothing critical would get hit, and it finally caught up with Columbia."
In January 1992, Gibson commanded a flight of the shuttle Endeavour, the program's 50th. The landing at the end of the mission was particularly satisfying. "The officially recorded touchdown sink rate was 0.0 feet per second," Gibson said; "we were almost perfectly asymptotic." Translation: despite the shuttle's perverse flight characteristics, Gibson brought Endeavour in for the kind of whisper-soft landing that earns airline pilots applause.
Gibson showed the same precise touch on his next shuttle mission, in which Atlantis was to dock with the Russian space station, Mir. Gibson was named to command the mission.
Atlantis launched on June 29, 1995. Once in orbit, Gibson began the delicate dance to bring the shuttle closer and closer to Mir.