"My initial reaction was: 'Is that a joke?' I was extremely ready to hit the beach. But then he said, 'In an F-14.'
"No way I was turning down something like that," Gibson said.
He was assigned to the first F-14 squadron: VF-1 at Naval Air Station Miramar in California. "I had just 30 hours in the F-14 when I went up against a thousand-hour F-4 guy. We called 'Fight's on!' and 30 seconds later I was sitting in his six [behind him]. We ran the engagement three times. The results were always the same. An F-14 with a nugget [novice] at the stick could outmaneuver, outturn, and outfight a Phantom flown by an old hand."
In 1976, Gibson got a slot in the test pilot school at Maryland's Naval Air Station Patuxent River. There he learned to methodically wring out new designs—single-seat jets, heavy transports, helicopters—moving step by step from known to unknown. "I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly the kind of flying I wanted to do. Then I picked up a copy of Aviation Week & Space Technology and saw an artist's drawing of the space shuttle…. The shuttle was the fastest, highest-flying airplane in history, and I just had to snivel my way into the left seat."
He sent the paperwork in to NASA. On January 16, 1978, he got the news: He was in.
That day, NASA named its eighth group of astronauts. One, a surgeon named Rhea Seddon, later became Gibson's wife. Today, they live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and have four children, Julie, Paul, Dann, and, the youngest at 13, Emilee.
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."