The White House Called

It was March, 1983. Hoot had been assigned to his first Space Shuttle flight which was to launch the next February. I was supporting the sixth flight, STS 6, which would be the upcoming flight in early April. And I had a nine-month-old son at home, so life was busy – but then, when hadn’t it been?

Returning to the office from Mission Control late one day after an arduous practice simulation for STS 6, I found several phone messages from my secretary. Most were routine – one was not. It read, “The White House called.” And there was a return phone number. Okay, who was the joker? This looked like one of the pranks that my military colleagues often played. I wondered who would answer if I called that number in the morning. Maybe one of their buddies who would say I’d been nominated to be the Secretary of Defense or something.

Next morning I called the number and was put through to a gentleman who identified himself as a White House scheduler. He wanted to verify that I’d be in Australia at the Australian Women Pilots Association in mid-April. How did he know that? I said I would. He asked if I’d like to represent the president at ANZAC Day in Australia after my visit with the lady pilots. President of what? This wasn’t the sort of joke I was expecting.

“May my husband come along?” I asked.
“Well, what does he do?”
“He’s an astronaut, too.”
“Well, uh…”
“He is a Navy fighter pilot.”

It turned out that ANZAC stood for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, and the day was an annual celebration of the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War II in which United States carrier pilots helped the Aussies fend off the Japanese. Some said it saved the island from invasion.

And it was the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who needed representing.
Hoot and I were off to one of the finest trips of our young lives. Baby Paul was dropped off with grandparents in Los Angeles, and we were guests at parties from the capital Canberra to Sydney, to Waga Waga and everywhere in between. The most memorable occasion was at a banquet in Sydney where military men from both countries were honored. The honorees lined up for introductions for the dinner. As Hoot and I waited we noticed we were the last to be introduced.

“And representing the President of the United States, Astronauts Dr. Rhea Seddon and Lt. Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson!”


As we entered the hall—to our great surprise—all those present rose. We hadn’t realized that anyone standing in for the president outranked them – admirals, generals, ambassadors. All of them. Hoot blushed to find that the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Foley, was standing at attention.

The trip was fabulous beyond our imagining. Years later when my Space Shuttle flights took me over their fair country, I waved at them from space.


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