Former astronaut and “Rare Bear” race pilot Robert “Hoot” Gibson has signed on as chief operating officer and chief test pilot for a fledgling California space tourism company.
Gibson, the first Space Shuttle commander to dock with the Russian “Mir” space station, joined Benson Space Co. of Poway, Calif., in mid-December. The start-up firm plans to use 1980s-vintage designs, adapted from some of NASA’s, to take passengers on rides beyond Earth’s atmosphere within two years.
Gibson’s extensive NASA and air-race experience is expected to boost Benson’s credibility among the emerging space tourism entrepreneurs, whose numbers are growing rapidly. The closely-held company, created only months ago, acknowledges that it will have an uphill battle to gain on the pioneering – and well-funded – venture established by Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson, the latter a billionaire.
Gibson retired last October from Southwest Airlines, where he was a pilot, when he reached the age of 60. He said that he started advising Benson Space founder Jim Benson about a year ago, when Benson proposed a commercial cargo spacecraft to NASA. Benson lost that competition and decided to develop a passenger version independently.
Gibson said he will oversee construction of the prototype spacecraft, dubbed “Dream Chaser,” which will be built by another of Benson’s companies. Gibson, who expects to fly the craft, notes the “Dream Chaser” will be able to take off and land more like an airplane than the Space Shuttle. He hopes to fly the rocket-powered craft to at least 104 miles above Earth, setting a record for a ground-launched aircraft.
Asked about gliding back to Earth aboard a rocket-ship at the age of 60, Gibson pointed out that his father worked as an FAA test pilot until he was past 70.
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