Astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson shares not only a name with America’s signature guitar company, but he also shares Gibson’s passion for the guitars. Born in the mid-40s in New York, “Hoot” Gibson grew up in California and spent most of his life interested in and studying science and engineering, and also playing guitar.
After “Hoot” graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1969, he began active duty, flying with the U.S. Navy later that year. “Hoot” stayed with the Navy until 1978 and flew over 6,000 hours in over 50 different types of civil and military aircraft and over 300 aircraft carrier landings.
“Hoot” joined NASA in 1978 and flew five missions into space from 1984 to 1995, and commanded the Space Shuttle mission STS-71. This mission was the first Space Shuttle mission to dock with the Russian Space Station Mir, and exchange crew members (seven members up, eight members down).
Throughout his aeronautical career, “Hoot” remained an active guitar player, even forming a band with several of his flight school friends. He collected guitars throughout his life and continues to do so now. Recently, “Hoot” acquired a 1952 Les Paul that was in pretty horrible shape. He contacted the Gibson Repair and Restoration Shop, and sent his Les Paul in for repair. What he received back was nothing “short of a miracle,” said “Hoot.”
On the day that he received his Les Paul from Gibson’s Repair and Restoration Shop, “Hoot” took some time to gush about the refurbished Les Paul, to remember his Gibson experience in space and to chat about his “Top Gun” days.
CG: How long have you been playing guitar?
HG: Well, I should be better than I am. I’ve been playing more than 40 years.
CG: How did you get started?
HG: It’s kinda silly. My dad had a four string guitar, it was called a tenor guitar, and the brand was Bluebird. And I had always wanted to learn to play the guitar. So when I was about 16 years old, he showed me a couple of chords and I started playing at that point and I’ve just been playing ever since. I’ve never had any lessons so I’m not anywhere near as good as I should be for having played that long. When I’m home, and I fly airliners now for SouthWest Airlines, but when I’m home for two or three days and if I don’t play my guitar every day when I’m home, I wind up saying to myself well I wasted a day, I didn’t play my guitar today. I may not be any good but I sure amuse myself.
CG: How did you begin your guitar collection?
HG: I have about 12 guitars today. I didn’t start out to collect guitars, but it just kind of happened. And I was playing in a bit of a rock band back in Houston, when I was an astronaut. I kept wanting a guitar I could do more things with. So I kept picking up another one, and then another one and then another one.
CG: And how did this particular guitar enter the collection?
HG: One of the guys I had worked with called and said “I’ve got something that you want. I’ve got a 1952 Les Paul.” I said, “You’re kidding.” But it didn’t look like a 1952 Les Paul. It had been painted red, and it had the wrong pickups on it and all the wrong equipment on it. And so that’s what led me to seek out [The Gibson Repair Shop] and see if they could make it look like it was supposed to look.
CG: What do you think about the guitar now?
HG: It’s spectacular. It’s really spectacular. I never could have believed that they could make it look this good. It’s at least brand new, or even better than brand new. I don’t even wanna play it! I just don’t want to play the thing. (laughing) And I’m really disgusted because right now I’ve got fingerprints all over it! I’m trying to hold it in the same place so I don’t smear fingerprints all over it! It’s just too pretty. I sure can’t stand the idea of it ever getting a scratch on it.
CG: What is your favorite type of music?
HG: It would be a lot of fun if I could play in a dance band. But mostly what I do nowadays is sit down and just play something instrumental – a lot of Beatles tunes, where you just play the chords and pick out the tune at the same time.
CG: Tell me about your first time in space.
HG: I had been a Navy fighter pilot and did the “Top Gun” and did the Navy Test Pilot School – I was a test pilot in the Navy. And I always figured I had stories I could tell my grandkids about flying into aircraft carriers and flying over Southeast Asia. But man, when I went into space that wiped out everything. That was the biggest thrill that you could ever have. I wasn’t scared, but about a week before I was set to launch, I asked myself, “Are you sure you wanna do this? Because you don’t have an ejection seat anymore and if something goes wrong – we didn’t even fly with parachutes. We were playing this game back then at NASA that said ‘Oh this thing is gonna be so safe, that we don’t even need parachutes.’ After we lost The Challenger, we thought ‘well we had that all wrong.’ So we revised everything and we changed it, but the first time we flew I wasn’t even wearing a parachute. So about a week before I asked myself that question and I said, “Wait a minute, I’ve been training for five and a half years to do this, it’s all I’ve been able to think about for the past two months is going into outer space.” And I thought, ‘I want to go no matter what the risk is.’
That’s not to say I didn’t think about things. I made sure I had all my insurance policies in order, I talked to my wife and told her where I wanted to be buried, and things like that. And it sounds kind of crazy, but when you think about it, it was peace of mind that you had it all taken care of.
CG: Was that a hard discussion to have?
HG: It really wasn’t because you believed you were going to come back. What it did, was it made you feel like you had put all your affairs in order before you left. It was really thrilling and fun to fly it. I made two missions before Challenger happened. I missed Challenger by one launch, I was the one right before it. And then I flew three times after Challenger. And in hindsight, I’m gonna say I feel I was kinda lucky to fly the thing five times and survive. 40% of the fleet was destroyed. We built five of them all together and we’ve destroyed two of them. So unfortunately it’s gonna go down in history as one of the most remarkable advancements in aviation ever. But it’s also going to go down as one of the most dangerous. I was really lucky because I got to be there for the real hayday of the Space Shuttle. I got to join NASA a couple of years before the first launch, help develop it and get everything ready, and brought it to full operational capabilities, and then help redesign and recover after The Challenger incident. And then I took the very first shuttle to dock with the Space Station. That’s where I took the Gibson guitar strings.
CG: You took Gibson guitar strings into space….
HG: The Russians had this old wooden piece of junk guitar with them up there at the Space Station. It was a piece of junk and we needed to bring gifts for them. So I got a hold of The Gibson Custom Shop and Gibson PR….and actually NASA wouldn’t let me accept any strings because government employees can’t accept gifts. So I just called Gibson and let them know that I bought some Gibson strings and would be taking them with me to the Russian Space Station.
So I made a real big deal out of presenting all the presents that I had for the Russians on live television and I made sure that Gibson Guitar showed up very clearly on the downlink. And that was a lot of fun. So Gibson Guitar strings went to the Space Station. Now their guitar, it was really a piece of junk. It was an old, wooden Russian guitar. But at least it had strings on it after we got there! I would have loved to have taken them a Gibson guitar, but NASA wouldn’t let us take anything like that with us because it’s flammable! So when you’re sitting on the launch pad, you’ve got four million gallons of liquid hydrogen that you’re sitting on but you can’t have any wood! That’s flammable. So we couldn’t take the guitar, because they said that was too much wood.
And that guitar was in a movie. While we were there, we were shooting IMAX footage, and the flight engineer on the Space Station played this guitar, and two or three of my crew members sang “Moscow Nights” with him. So he was playing this tune and it was funny because my whole crew was faking it, they didn’t even know the words! And the whole thing was filmed in IMAX and it’s in the IMAX movie “Mission to Mir.” And the guitar was in the movie with the Gibson strings on it.
CG: Last question – where did “Hoot” come from?
HG: I always tell people that it comes from ‘not worth a hoot.’ No actually it didn’t. There was an old cowboy movie star from the late 1930s, named Hoot Gibson. He was world champion cowboy in 1912 and died in the 60s. So after that, everybody whose name is Gibson usually picked up the name “Hoot.” My dad picked it up and then I did. And when I got to my first fighter squadron, if you saw Top Gun, you know that everybody has to have a call sign on the radio. That becomes your real name is what happens. And your call sign becomes your name. And so I got “Hoot.” Most people don’t even know my real name is Robert!