As SpaceX successfully launched its first two people into orbit over the weekend, Dr. Denton Gibson, a Bahamas-born systems engineer who played an integral role in the history-making project, breathed a sigh of relief.
Gibson, who lives in Orlando, Florida, is a vehicle system engineering discipline expert at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
He has been working at NASA for over 15 years, but said this was the first time he was responsible for human lives, and the high stakes were nerve-wracking.
“I would definitely say sitting there on console watching all the data coming from the launch vehicle and just going through the countdown and working out any issues and stuff like that, it was exciting and scary at the same time,” Gibson said.
“It was scary in the sense that we’ve been used to launching satellites and space probes for a long time. If one of those would have failed, yeah it’s a few hundred million dollars, but it can be rebuilt.
“In this case, there are people on board. If it fails, people lose their lives. You can’t rebuild somebody’s life. So, that was the part that made me nervous.”
Gibson added, “I was very stressed out going into this.”
SpaceX became the first private company to launch astronauts for NASA on Saturday.
While Gibson’s experience at NASA has spanned many years and he’s worked on a number of key missions, he said this experience was a particularly interesting one for him.
“There are many different systems on the rocket,” he said.
“You have the propulsion system, the fluid system, the avionics, electrical, etc. As a systems engineer, my system is the entire rocket.
“So, I have to know enough about each of the individual systems to know how they interact with each other and know how they impact each other. So, I have a team of engineers that support me, and I’m the engineering team lead for the launch vehicle.”
He said, “I’ve worked a lot of [missions]. My program in NASA is the Launch Services Program. We deal with all of the science missions. So, the Mars rovers, we launch. Parker Solar Probe that’s traveling at almost 100,000 miles an hour that’s orbiting the sun, we launched that.
“We launched the Pluto New Horizons that’s on the edge of the solar system looking for new planets right now. So, all of the big science systems, the program that I work for launched.”
Gibson added, “[So], we’ve been doing the science missions; I mean the program that I work for, they started in 1998, so they’ve been doing it for a long time.
“The commercial crew program has just come along. So, we’ve been doing this a lot longer than they have, so we’ve been kind of helping them to figure things out and get their program started.
“So, for at least a couple of years, I’ve been an advisor to them, basically helping them get their program up and running, saying this is how it works, this is how you do it, etc.
“So, that’s why I say it’s been an interesting experience, because usually, my team and I are completely running the mission. But in this role, I was mentoring them and helping them get going.
“In a lot of cases, I had to use my team to do a lot of the work, because they didn’t have the people to do it. So, not only was I helping them out, but I was also still involved in it.”
Gibson, who was born in The Bahamas, but moved to the United States when he was seven years old, said he always knew he wanted to be an engineer, but he never imagined he would end up working for NASA.
“To be honest with you, NASA wasn’t even on my radar when I was younger,” he said.
“I’ve always been interested in math and science. I always tell people math was my second language.
“[A]nd going into college, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, because I loved math and science. I loved building things, working with my hands, solving problems. So, engineering was always something I knew I wanted to go in to.
“But, particularly working for NASA, that wasn’t immediately on my radar. It wasn’t until I went to a career fair at my university where a NASA recruiter was there, grabbed my résumé, and got to talking, and the next thing you know, I got an interview.”
Gibson graduated from University of Florida, University of Miami and University of Central Florida.
“When God has a plan, He makes it happen without you even realizing what’s going on,” he told The Nassau Guardian.
Gibson, 40, said his days struggling to make ends meet while studying at university prepared him for the work he does now.
“Hard work always pays off, and sometimes it pays off in ways you wouldn’t even expect it to,” he said.
“I honestly feel like that’s exactly what happened with me. I went through working three jobs while I was in school full-time, doing that kind of crazy thing for years, and being broke and living off of Ramen noodles and Hamburger Helper.
“Once you get through all of that, you never know what’s waiting for you. And, thank God, this is the situation that was waiting for me.
“And I think all of that prepared me for this.”