Robert “Hoot” Gibson spent just three years on Long Island: as a senior at Huntington High School and as a freshman and sophomore at Suffolk County Community College.
But it was his time spent at the Suffolk college, where he majored in engineering science, that led him to become an astronaut, he said.
On Friday, the former “Top Gun” pilot visited the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City to announce the opening of “Space: A Journey to Our Future,” one of the country’s largest interactive traveling space exhibits.
“I am very pleased to be back on Long Island again, because it played such a role in my future,” said Gibson, 71, who lives in Nashville. “And we’re here to talk about futures today.”
The display is part of the museum’s “Countdown to Apollo at 50” celebration, highlighting the Island’s contributions to the first moon landing.
Gibson served as pilot and commander on five shuttle missions. He said most of his flight time, before he earned his pilot’s license, had been spent flying out of a Deer Park airport as a student pilot.
The former naval officer and aviator spoke to almost 200 visiting fifth- to eighth-graders from East Meadow, Franklin Square, North Merrick and Roose velt on Friday morning about his 18-year career as an astronaut. When he asked the students how many wanted to go to Mars, about 85 percent raised their hands.
“What could be more exciting than that?” he said.
Museum president Andrew Parton said the new exhibit includes a lunar habitat as well as rarely and never before seen artifacts from the Apollo space program. The exhibition — which has immersive environments to engage visitors of all ages — is free with museum admission through August 2019 and is intended to be a fun interpretation of the future of space travel.
“We hope the exhibit inspires the next generation of explorers to look to the stars,” Parton said.
George Iliopoulos, Harrison Haber and Ryan Jacobs, fifth-graders at Barnum Woods Elementary School in East Meadow, said they never imagined they’d meet an astronaut. The 10-year-olds took advantage of that opportunity as they fired questions at Gibson about his eating and sleeping habits in space and how much experience was required to become an astronaut.
Gibson answered each question with ease and said he hoped to have helped the children’s science aspirations to take flight.