An inauspicious start

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He admits he was far from a good student at Lindbergh Elementary School in Kenmore, where he began his education in 1942, and had an inauspicious beginning to his academic life. "I started out being president of my first-grade class two years in a row. They kept me around, [but] not because they liked me.'' Soon, however, a boyhood fascination with stars and planets began to develop, and this eventually grew into a fundamental interest in science and astronomy: "I used to draw pictures of the solar system and so forth.'' But his hobby was still not enough to entice him into any sort of enthusiasm for regular schoolwork. "I was young and had many other distractions, so this early interest was really the only thing I ever did that was academic in any way. My two older siblings were both A students, so I suppose I was the dunce of the family.''6

Edward G. Gibson, PhD.

When asked how his interest in astronomy came about, the answer came quickly. ''I was always fascinated with the questions: 'What's around the next bend? What's out there beyond Earth? Are there people somewhere in the stars?' Maybe I found my forced studies boring, and retreated to that in which I could find some stimulation.''6 Having completed primary school in 1949, Gibson graduated to Kenmore High School on Highland Parkway, but he was still indecisive about what direction he wanted to take in life. However, the thought of flying with the Air Force had held a youthful appeal for him, although he admits he had not truly knuckled down to his studies at this stage of his life. ''When I got to high school I improved my performance a little bit, and finally learned through several sad experiences that I had to study if I was going to get anywhere. I was still oriented toward science and math, but this did not translate itself into a firm commitment to excel in my studies. I liked football, astronomy, airplanes, girls and school - pretty much in that order. Because of all this, I barely got into college.''

To his disappointment, and that of his parents - particularly his father - an application to attend Cornell University was turned down. Fortunately another application, this time to the University of Rochester in New York, was successful. ''The University of Rochester is where I grew up scientifically. I'm forever in the debt of these wonderful people because they took me in and gave me guidance and an opportunity to improve myself. The quality of the education I received there was absolutely first class, and set me in the right direction.''

Asked about any teachers who may have proved a particular influence or guidance in his scholastic courses and ambitions at this time, Gibson nominated Dr. Louis Contra (Rockets and Thermodynamics) and Dr. Joseph Frank (English Literature).

For the summer of 1958, Gibson went to work as a machinist at his father's marking devices company in Buffalo. Here, he learned how to operate such equipment as lathes, milling machines and punch presses. As he recalls, there was quite a bit of fatherly pressure to become involved in the running of the firm. ''He made rubber stamps, steel dies and stencils among other things, and wanted me to go into business with him. It was his feeling that if I first learned the engineering side of things, I could always pick up the business side later. So, for lack of any real course direction in my life at that time, I went into engineering.''

The decision would cause a greater determination and commitment in Gibson's life, but it also led him on to a new course. ''Once I got into it, I found I really liked basic science more. I enjoyed studying and exploring physics, and combined that with my passion for astronomy. In this way I developed an interest in rocketry and space travel. In addition, I was a quarterback on the varsity football team, which kept me from becoming a one hundred percent bookworm! Although it was a lot of hard work to get my brain in full gear, college was a great experience.''6

In 1959, Gibson graduated from Rochester University with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering, and on 22 August that year, he married Julie Anne Volk from the neighbouring township of Tonawanda. She had been his girlfriend since the days when he was a senior in high school, and she was in her freshman year.

Gibson's earlier thoughts of becoming a jet pilot had dissipated due to his childhood bouts with osteomyelitis, and he realised that this was enough to preclude him from pursuing that particular ambition. "I thought that if I couldn't fly them, I might as well build them. So, much to my father's regret, I accepted a National Science Foundation Fellowship and the opportunity to earn a Master's degree in mechanical engineering with a jet propulsion option at CalTech.'' For the summer before going to California, he worked as a design engineer with Sylvania Electric in Buffalo, where he involved himself in conducting thermal, vibration and shock tests of electromagnetic countermeasure systems for Convair's B-58 Hustler.

During his time as a graduate student, America's space programme was on the move, and he followed each flight in the Mercury and Gemini programmes. "Like everybody else, I would stay up and watch the launches late at night or early morning, never thinking I'd have a chance to be involved in them. But I could see where it was headed and was just fascinated by it.''6

His new bride Julie proved sublimely helpful to him, both in her moral support and by working to help make ends meet as he battled to get through his studies at CalTech. They also began a family, and became proud, excited parents of Jannet Lynn on 9 November 1960 - the first of their eventual four children. As they cared for their baby daughter his relentless studies continued. "After five hard years I got my PhD. I never would have anticipated that earlier on in life, but your self-image changes over time. It was during those five years of struggling that a certain realisation fully hit home - that if you work hard enough at almost anything, you can do well.''

John Edward Gibson entered the world on 2 May 1964, and the following month, suitably armed with his PhD in engineering and a minor in physics, his father went to work as a senior research assistant for Applied Research Laboratories, an adjunct of the Ford-Philco Corporation at Newport Beach in California. Gibson's work in their Aeronautronic Division involved theoretical and experimental studies in laser pumping and optical breakdown of gases. In this he would utilise high voltage energy storage, rapid energy release and high vacuum technologies.

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