Astronaut Edward Gibson served on Skylab in 1970s
As a young boy during the 1940s, Edward Gibson suffered from osteomyelitis, a disease that softens bones. Around the time his family moved out of Buffalo’s Parkside neighborhood into Kenmore, Eddie was forced to repeat first grade because he had missed so much school during his frequent hospital stays. His parents worried that their son’s leg might be amputated.
But when penicillin became available, the disease was quickly cured. As Gibson grew into a teen, he strengthened his bones by playing football, running track, and becoming a swimmer.
When he graduated from Kenmore Senior High School in 1955, Gibson admits he wasn’t a great student. (As you’ll see, Gibson tends to underplay his achievements.) He says his father pushed him to study, and it wasn’t until his college years at the University of Rochester that he turned serious.
“I like to joke that I was president of my first grade class — twice,” Gibson said. “But I wasn’t interested in school. When I got into college, I finally realized, it’s now or never.”
Gibson reached a pinnacle (literally) that few do, becoming Western New York’s first astronaut. He worked on the ground crew of Apollo 12, then spent 84 days on the Skylab Space Station during 1973-74.
Now retired and living outside of Phoenix, Gibson, who recently turned 83, remains easygoing, humble, and self-deprecating. He achieved a remarkable career in science. Since his childhood in Western New York, he has lived all over the United States and in Germany and has worked as an astronaut, pilot, engineer, author, and motivational speaker.
“I don’t think anybody remembers me,” he said. “Well, my family does, but other than that…”
Not so, claims Don Erwin, a Snyder resident who currently serves as Board President for the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls and formerly worked for NASA at the Johnson Space Center.
“He’s pretty famous,” Erwin said. “I’m a space nerd from the time I was a kid. When someone like me says [Gibson] was a rock star, I have a context that maybe the average person doesn’t. But his accomplishments mean something, plus he’s a local guy.”
Good Thing They Read the Newspaper
“When I was going to school I had never heard the word ‘astronaut,’” Gibson reflected. “There was no such thing. I always wanted to fly high-performance airplanes but I had a disease that disqualified me medically. I thought, well, if I can’t fly them, I might as well build them.”
After earning an engineering degree in 1959 from the University of Rochester, Gibson was studying jet propulsion rocketry in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology when his wife, Julie, stumbled across an article in the Los Angeles Times. She quickly showed her husband that NASA was seeking applicants to fly high-performance airplanes.
Gibson’s dream lay before him in print. He didn’t know it then, but that article shifted the direction of his life.
“At 7:30 the next morning, I applied,” he recalled. “So did about 1000 other people.”
He benefited from a high class rank at Caltech and assembled solid recommendations. His successes in both science and sports helped him stand out.
“Playing college football and being a track and cross-country runner showed I had the ability to do something other than sit and study books,” he said. “I was fortunate to be healthy by then and had traits that NASA wanted.”
Gibson joined NASA in 1965. In July 1969, Apollo 11 captured the world’s imagination by landing on the moon for the first time. Gibson served on the ground crew for its follow-up mission, Apollo 12, four months later. On November 19, astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan Bean touched down near the moon’s Ocean of Storms.
“I got to know the guys who flew,” Gibson said. “I worked with Pete and Al while they were training. I was part of the support crew, working with them from the ground.”
He also coordinated with Richard Gordon, who remained in orbit as command module pilot.
“We did all the hard work and they got the glory,” Gibson deadpanned. “They were a spirited group.”
Following Apollo 12, Gibson helped design components of the Skylab Space Station. As part of his research in solar astrophysics, he wrote a book titled The Quiet Sun.
“It has more about the sun than you’ll ever want to know,” he said dryly. Published in America in 1973, it was well respected internationally. In fact, it was translated and made available in Russia four years later, during the height of the Cold War.
Building on his early successes, Gibson was chosen as the science pilot for Skylab 4.
(There is some confusion with the numbering of Skylab missions. Although there were only three missions, they were numbered 2, 3, and 4. The first mission was considered the equipment launch. Gibson was on Skylab 4, but his original patch is emblazoned with the number 3.)
Working with two other astronauts, they launched in November 1973, and remained in orbit until the following February. Making 1214 revolutions of Earth, they flew 34.5 million miles. At 84 days, it was the longest manned space flight until March 1978, when a Soviet crew eclipsed their record.
Despite being engaged in activities nearly all the time in space, astronauts who have spent long blocks away from earth understand the isolation. Deep bonds are formed with fellow astronauts. Gibson remains friendly with Gerald Carr, mission commander of Skylab. The third astronaut, William Pogue, passed away in 2014.
“Absolutely, there’s a very special bond,” said Carr, 87, who lives in Vermont. “We were better friends when we got back than when we left. The reason is, we had a common enemy: the guys on the ground who were trying to work us to death.”
Each astronaut had a specific role, according to Carr. As science officer, Gibson’s job was to oversee solar physics. Carr was the mission commander, and Pogue served as flight engineer. From the outset, the trio fell behind in their planned work.
“At first, we couldn’t keep up,” Carr noted. “It was a rough start. But by the end of the mission, we were looking for things to do. We had gotten our feet under us.”
According to online sources, the trio conducted 56 experiments, 26 science demonstrations, and 13 student investigations. Gibson completed three spacewalks outside the orbital workshop, with nothing but inky space around him.
“You’re aware of the environment that you’re in, but you’re out there for a purpose,” he reflected. “You’re trying to remember everything you’ve been training for. You’ve gone through simulations and procedures on the ground, so you’ve got that in your mind. If something went wrong, it would probably be my fault.”
Being in space with zero gravity for long periods affects the human body. Although Gibson needed to adjust once he splashed down to earth, he was fortunate to suffer no long-term health challenges.
“It took about three days to get our stability back, and about two weeks to regain our balance,” he said. “But we came back all right. I had to walk slowly, with my feet wide apart. You lose bone mass and muscle mass in space, especially in your legs. That took about two months to get back. You can also lose calcium. Being in space changes the pressure on the back of your eyeballs. None of us had any vision problems, although about twenty percent of astronauts have.”
The suits astronauts wear are designed to help blood circulate in zero gravity. Another danger is that they are exposed to more radiation than a person on earth. Astronauts living on the space station today have learned from their predecessors in Skylab. NASA has designed specific workout equipment for them and they are required to use it.
“The physical part of returning to earth took a little time,” Carr agreed. “There were muscles we hadn’t used, so there was atrophy. The soft membranes between our joints weren’t used to carrying weight. It took a few days to toughen up the cartilage. Around the fourth or fifth day back, we tried to run our mile. Ed was able to get it done, but he was hurting. I didn’t feel like I could finish it.”
Although they live on opposite ends of the country, Gibson and Carr still speak several times each year.
“Being in space together is something we worked towards and have in common,” Gibson said. “We’ll always have that bond.”
Gibson’s lighthearted personality was evident on Skylab, Carr said.
“Ed is a punster and jokester. He’s very subtle about it. He’s not a raucous kind of guy. He’s kind of quiet, but he always has something clever to say to pick you up and get you to smile. He’s worth hearing, even today.”
Carr recalled their liftoff, the explosion and the thrust of being shot away from earth’s gravity. Despite the cacophony, he could hear fluids rushing through pipes on the rocket.
“Ed turned to us and said, ‘I think the basement of this building just exploded.’”
Like Gibson, Bill Jack is a 1955 graduate of Kenmore Senior High School. Now retired and living on Grand Island, Jack spent his career as a social studies teacher and administrator in Kenmore schools. He has encountered Gibson up close at different stages of his life.
“When we were students, I didn’t know Ed very well,” he said. “But he’s come to class reunions and has given presentations to the kids at Kenmore West. He shows videos of what he experienced in space, and it’s pretty neat for them. The kids are usually very interested. They’re surprised to some degree to learn that the school produced an astronaut.”
After retiring from education in 1995, Jack continues to head the Kenmore Alumni Association.
“During Ed’s presentations, the school would set aside a few rows, and 25 or 30 of Ed’s classmates came to the assembly. There were a couple times I was asked to introduce him. He’s a regular, good guy. He was a better-than-average student in high school, but when he went to the University of Rochester, he really found his niche. He got very interested in astrophysics and went to a jet lab.”
Even today, Gibson continues to talk to students about his experiences. This fall, he was scheduled to speak to an assembly of middle schoolers in California, where his daughter-in-law, Cindy, is a teacher.
“I want to impress to the kids that you can do anything you set your mind to,” he said.
As part of his commitment to education, in 1979, Gibson donated several personal items to the Buffalo Museum of Science, including patches and photos of earth he took from Skylab.
“I knew the guy who was running the Buffalo Museum of Science way back when,” Gibson explained.
“That was Ernst Both,” said Kathryn Leacock, the museum’s Director of Collections. “He was the curator of astronomy for fifty years. People remember him fondly. He did all the sun shows and ran our astronomy program. Gibson had a friendly relationship with him.”
Gibson’s ephemera and photographs are part of a “legacy collection” housed in the museum’s library. It includes letters Gibson wrote to his parents, photo prints signed by Gibson and other astronauts, and technical publications from NASA.
“In the 1990s, on the fourth floor of the museum, we had a room called the Gibson Hall of Space,” Leacock said. “That was two galleries ago. This past May, we displayed part of his collection at an event called SpaceFEST. We staffed two or three tables, laid out some of the material, and talked about our local astronaut. People were most interested in the photographs. There is one signed to the museum.”
Leacock, who has worked at the Buffalo Museum of Science for 16 years, proudly recalls meeting Gibson years ago when he participated in a program there about pioneers in space.
“How often do you get to meet an astronaut?” she asked. “He was kind enough to come to the museum and present to groups all day long.”
Gibson resigned from NASA late in 1974 to research solar physics data with a Los Angeles company. He also spent a year living and working as a consultant in West Germany before returning to NASA in 1977 to participate in astronaut selection and training. Here he contributed to the design of the space shuttle.
“We were trying to build something entirely based on our experiences,” he reflected. “We wanted something that could go up and come back and be used over and over again. It was supposed to reduce the cost, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
He retired from NASA for good in 1982, and worked for a company called TRW before launching his own consulting firm in 1990. Seven years later, he was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Among Gibson’s diverse interests is writing. In addition to The Quiet Sun, he wrote two novels, Reach, published in 1989, and In the Wrong Hands, published in 1992, both adventure stories related to space travel.
“I always liked to write, and when I got out of NASA I thought I’d try it,” he said. “I worked between 4 and 7 every morning, and enjoyed the process.”
He has also edited The Greatest Adventure, a compilation of stories from men and women who have been in space. He is currently writing a non-fiction piece titled America Enters Space.
“It’s some history, but more than a textbook. It deals with what’s behind the space program, where we’ve had success, where we’ve fallen short and where we’re going in the future.”
Gibson still accepts an occasional speaking engagement, but jokes that his full-time job is being a husband. His wife, the former Julie Anna Volk, grew up in Tonawanda.
“She went to Mount St. Mary’s,” Gibson said. “I met her while I was lifeguarding at the old Delaware Pool. She was a sweet young thing, and I was a lecherous older man. Now I’m 82 and she’s 80, and we’ve been good friends and partners for sixty years.”
The Gibsons have four children: daughter Jannet lives in Germany and works as an interior designer; son John is a captain with American Airlines; and daughter Julie lives in Arizona and runs several businesses. Their youngest, Joe, was an emergency room doctor before he passed away. The Gibsons have four grandchildren.
Traveling to the Future
Gibson jokes about repeating first grade, recognizing the irony. Despite calling himself an apathetic student, he built a unique and impressive career.
“Years later, when I visited Buffalo, they gave me the key to the city,” he said. “And one of my grade school teachers was there. Her name was Cora Landsittel. By then, I was an adult, and she was a nice little old lady. Yet I remember being very intimidated by her when I was a student.”
He returned to Western New York in 2005 for his fiftieth high school reunion, but has not been back since. Still, he thinks fondly of the area, recalling his youth growing up on Deerhurst Parkway.
More importantly, he remains optimistic about upcoming challenges for space exploration.
“The future of space travel is bright, but it’s a different time,” he reflected. “NASA has gotten to be an old bureaucratic organization, so private enterprises stepped in. We’re faced now with an ability to travel to Mars. We have engines to do that and even go further in the solar system. We have technologies but don’t always have specific applications. But there are resources out there we can use, like resources from the moon or various metals on other planets.”
Despite its turbulent history and the stark risks faced by people in the space program, Gibson remains convinced it is relevant and important to the modern world.
“Underneath everything is the goal to explore,” he said. “To know the world around you and the spheres that are open to you.”
© 2019 by Jeff Schober
Greg Tranter, whose collection of Buffalo Bills memorabilia was featured in April 2019's Buffalo Tales story, has written a new book: Makers, Moments and Memorabilia: A Chronicle of Buffalo Professional Sports. Tranter will be promoting the book around Western New York in November and December.
Find him at the Buffalo History Museum between 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 30 and between 6-7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 11. He will also speak at the Central Library in downtown Buffalo between 6-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 12. Click the book above to order online.
And if you're searching for holiday presents, visit www.jeffschober.com to preview books with a Buffalo connection.