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.
"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.