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“The Guy That Sank to the Bottom”: The Falls and Rise of Jerry Ross

On STS-110 in April 2002, Jerry Ross became the first person to record a seventh space flight. He is seen here with a montage of his crew patches, shaped into the figure '7'. Photo Credit: NASA.

When President Ronald Reagan announced plans to build a permanent space station in the spring of 1984, NASA quickly realised that its construction would involve many hours of EVA. Moreover, the complexity of the work promised to be far more arduous and intricate than anything previously attempted. The agency already had plans for astronauts to perform a pair of tests – the Experimental Assembly of Structures in EVA (EASE) and the Assembly Concept for Construction of Erectable Space Structures (ACCESS) – which would involve the construction of an inverted tetrahedron and a huge ‘tower’ in the Shuttle’s payload bay. For Jerry Ross, who retired in January after more than 30 years with NASA, a record-tying seven Shuttle missions and an impressive nine EVAs, his career would run the gamut in terms of space stations. He would build imitation components on his first flight, demonstrate crew translation aids on his third, tackle space station research disciplines on his fourth, occupy a station on his fifth and build the real thing in orbit on his sixth and seventh. If the career of any astronaut was inextricably tied to the birth of the International Space Station, then surely it is that of Jerry Ross.

At first glance, the EASE-ACCESS task performed by Ross and crewmate Sherwood ‘Woody’ Spring on two spacewalks during Mission 61B in November-December 1985 looked relatively straightforward. No tools were involved and the spacewalkers were required to snap together the prefabricated segments, linking them with a series of nodes, clusters of sockets and lockable ‘sleeves’ to erect and secure each structure. There were, however, a large number of components. The ACCESS tower had no fewer than 93 tubular aluminium struts, including diagonals, measuring up to 1.8 m in length, and the EASE tetrahedron had half a dozen beams, each 3.6 m long.

Yet the team who would perform the experiment could hardly have guessed this to be the case when they were announced in February 1984. Commander Brewster Shaw, pilot Bryan O’Connor and mission specialists Jerry Ross, Mary Cleave and Woody Spring were assigned to Mission 51D, which was then scheduled for February 1985 to deploy the Syncom 4-3 communications satellite and retrieve NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility after almost a year in orbit. For several months, their flight did not change, but by August 1984 the manifest had shifted and Shaw’s team were realigned to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite on Mission 51L in July 1985. In the March 1985 manifest they were reassigned to 61B with a cargo of three communications satellites – one for Australia, another for Mexico and a third for the Radio Corporation of America. By their own admission, it was Ross and Spring, both of whom had worked extensively on EVA issues since joining the astronaut office in May 1980, who pushed for EASE-ACCESS to be added to their mission.

Ross flew his last mission, STS-110 on space shuttle Atlantis. In fact, Ross flew into space five times on Atlantis (he flew once on Columbia and once on Endeavour). Photo Credit: NASA

For Ross, who would go on to help build a real space station – the International Space Station – later in his career, EVA was an obsession. It was a remarkable achievement for a highly skilled mechanical engineer…who could not swim. “I got assigned to EVA because I was the class rock,” he told the NASA oral historian. “When we did our swimming training and our scuba training, I was the guy that sank to the bottom. We had a couple of different people in the astronaut office who had Red Cross swimming training…try to teach me how to swim.” One day, Mary Cleave took Ross over to Anna and Bill Fisher’s house and showed him a few strokes in their swimming pool. “Either I sank to the bottom,” Ross remembered, “or I went backwards!” In the end, Cleave gave up.

Training underwater had long been standard practice for EVAs and Ross eventually learned to scuba dive and remained qualified throughout his time as an astronaut. After qualifying in the space suit he began to focus on satellite servicing procedures, and worked extensively with Bruce McCandless on the Manned Manoeuvring Unit. He was a capcom during Joe Allen and Dale Gardner’s dramatic spacewalks on Mission 51A to retrieve the stranded Palapa and Westar satellites. “Once I got into the EVA area and worked EVA,” Ross said, “I never let it go. Even if I wasn’t officially assigned to it, I continued to work in it and to do whatever I could to have opportunities to get in the [water] tank [to] do development or testing work.”

By the end of his astronaut career, he would have performed nine EVAs – or possibly ten, if the reader believes rumours of a ‘secret’ excursion on his second mission – and spent more than 58 hours working outside the Shuttle in space. In April 1985, during the effort to develop a ‘flyswatter’ repair to activate the deployment switch on Syncom 4-3, Ross and fellow astronaut Mark Lee practiced the EVA procedure underwater in Houston. Today, in early 2012, his experience has secured him third place (behind Anatoli Solovyov and Mike Lopez-Alegria) in the list of the world’s most experienced spacewalkers.

During training for Mission 61B, Ross and Spring kept track of EASE-ACCESS and eventually succeeded in persuading managers to give the assembly task to their flight. Over a period of several months, the two men worked with the experimenters to choreograph a pair of six-hour EVAs, whose primary objective would be to assess the efficacy of assembling the structures in a microgravity environment, encased in a bulky space suit. ACCESS did not pose insurmountable obstacles. “Both crew members were in fixed foot restraints,” said Ross. “It was basically just a matter of bringing a part out, putting it onto this assembly fixture, hooking the components together, rotating to the three faces, then sliding the completed segment of truss up, and repeating the process for a total of ten ‘bays’. We knew that that technique would be a very satisfactory way of doing business, because when a crew member’s feet are anchored properly, that gives you both hands free to do work.” EASE, on the other hand, was more problematic, since one of the men would be positioned, free-floating, without foot restraints, at the ‘top’ of the structure, holding on with one hand and torquing the beams into position with the other.

On STS-74 Ross traveled to the Russian space station Mir. During his long career with the U.S. space agency Ross would also fly to the International Space Station (ISS) and deploy the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Photo Credit: NASA

Lessons from earlier EVAs had already proven that the absence of foot restraints and adequate hand holds made it extremely difficult for spacewalkers to steady themselves and perform tasks. Six months before launch, Ross and Spring were performing a least one long-duration simulation, per week, in the Weightless Environment Training Facility (WET-F) water tank in Houston, deliberately spending up to six hours underwater to mirror their actual timeline as closely as possible. It was tough, physically demanding work.

By November 1985, the plans for two EVAs had been finalised. The first excursion would begin with the construction of ACCESS, with one astronaut in foot restraints and the other at the end of Atlantis’ Canadian-built robotic arm. They would disassemble the tower and spend the second half of the EVA repeatedly building and dismantling the EASE tetrahedron, perhaps as many as six times. Two days later, the second excursion would involve further construction tests, attaching flexible cables to simulate electrical wiring and practicing the physical movement, by hand, of the structures around the payload bay. In practice, the EVAs went well. On 29 November, three days after launch, Ross and Spring departed Atlantis’ airlock and spent five hours and 32 minutes outside.

Ross was so excited that he had to muster all of his strength not to let out a “war whoop of glee” when he ventured outside. The ACCESS tower was built in less than an hour – half the time allocated – and so the two men disassembled it and reassembled it a second time. EASE also proved somewhat ‘easier’ than anticipated, with eight assemblies completed, rather than the planned six. Both men found that their fingers grew numb over time. Fatigue was a problem. “Literally, your mind is going a million miles an hour,” said Ross, “thinking about what you’re supposed to do, thinking about every step of the procedures, what your buddy’s doing, how’s the suit doing…and looking up, every once in a while, and trying to capture a snapshot of where you’re flying over. I was literally mentally the most fatigued, even more than physically.”

On 1 December, the duo were outside again, this time for six hours and 42 minutes, and Ross perched himself in a mobile foot restraint on the robot arm, whilst Mary Cleave manoeuvred him to the end of ACCESS to assemble its tenth and final bay. Ross installed mock cables and Spring released the tower and allowed his crewmate to handle it manually from the end of the arm. The EASE tetrahedron was also moved by Spring and ‘repair’ methods, involving the removal and replacement of components, were satisfactorily completed. So jubilant were the two men when they returned inside Atlantis that they volunteered to prepare the evening meal for the entire crew.

On STS-88, Ross led three complex EVAs with crewmate Jim Newman to install the United States' Unity connecting node onto the Russian Zarya control module. Photo Credit: NASA.

“EVA is not a two-person job,” said Spring. “The two guys that get to go outside get the glory from it…The rest of the crew was dead tired. Jerry and I were the ones that prepared supper, because everybody else looked so tired from moving the [RMS], so they could get the pictures, holding the orbiter, turning on lights.” Although Spring was correct that the spacewalkers got the glory of the EVA, the real glory was the sheer grandeur of the Home Planet itself. “I remember one whole pass over Africa,” he recalled. “We launched in November, which is about when the monsoons break in Africa, so almost three-quarters of that continent, at least coastal, is just consumed with thunderstorms!” The flashes of lightning were almost continuous. Both Spring and Ross took the time to watch in awe. Aside from the anticipated difficulties with EASE-ACCESS, the spacewalkers found that they typically met or exceeded the speeds at which they had been able to assemble and disassemble the structures in the WET-F. (After the flight, Ross commented that the crew had tried to manifest the Manned Manoeuvring Unit onto 61B, thinking that it would prove useful for moving components and attaching cables.)

However, they were dissatisfied that the WET-F did not even come close to mirroring the environment for building a space station. Neil Hutchinson, a former flight director who had been named as NASA’s head of the station project, attended the 61B post-flight debriefing and the astronauts explained the need for a much larger underwater training facility. “For the next ten years,” remembered Ross, “I ended up being one of the delegates from JSC that went to Washington to make presentations on the need of a new facility.” He also led tiger teams and served on inspection teams for an effort which eventually produced the Sonny Carter Training Facility at JSC, which is today used for the EVA preparations of all astronauts. For an Air Force mechanical engineer who could not swim, Ross had succeeded triumphantly. He would continue succeeding for the rest of his astronaut career.

Jerry Lynn Ross was born on 20 January 1948 in Crown Point, Indiana, and represents one of only a handful of individuals to have dedicated virtually his adult working life to the astronaut business. His EVA accomplishments have already been noted, but in April 2002 he became the first human to chalk up as many as seven missions into space. It is a record which was tied a few months later by fellow astronaut Franklin Chang-Díaz and which both men jointly hold to this day. Ross grew up at a time when the Cold War was at its peak and the idea of rockets, whether for carrying explosives or men, was steadily entering the popular consciousness as something more than a facet of science fiction.

As a child, he watched television shows about space stations, read articles in Life magazine, created scrapbooks of space-related events and watched in awestruck astonishment when the Soviets launched Sputnik and America responded with Explorer-1. Even at this young age, he was introduced to the word ‘engineer’. “I truly didn’t fully understand what an engineer was,” Ross told the oral historian, “but I knew that they had to use a lot of math and science. I liked math and science, so I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to become an engineer.” By his own confession, this gave him a one-track mind, working on farms to earn enough money for a bank account which would someday pay his way through the prestigious Purdue University.

His three-step plan was relatively straightforward: (1) Be an engineer, (2) Go to Purdue and (3) Get into the space programme. In Ross’ mind, it was as cut and dried as that. Unlike so many others, he stuck doggedly to his plan and not only achieved it, but surpassed it. After completing high school in 1966, he entered Purdue to study mechanical engineering and received his bachelor’s degree in 1970 and a master’s in 1972. He entered active duty with the Air Force and worked on computer-aided design of ramjet engines and captives tests of supersonic ramjet missiles at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Ross graduated at the top of his class from the Air Force Test Pilot School’s flight test engineer course in 1976 and later served as project engineer for the flying qualities of the B-1 Lancer bomber. Part of this role was the training and supervision of all B-1 flight test engineers but also mission planning for the bomber’s offensive avionics.

Although he always hoped for an eighth mission, Jerry Ross was under no illusions - particularly after the loss of Columbia - that he would get another chance. On 19 April 2002, flying a record fifth time aboard Atlantis, he returned from space for the last time. Photo Credit: NASA.

“The B-1 at the time was the Air Force’s highest-priority programme,” he remembered, “and I was given the opportunity to come on-board as a B-1 flight test engineer and to work in the stability and flight controls areas of the B-1.” It was shortly after the B-1 effort that Ross learned about NASA’s plans to hire astronauts; he was one of thousands of hopefuls who submitted applications in 1977 and, though summoned to Houston for interview, was unsuccessful. Still, he persevered and George Abbey, the director of Flight Crew Operations, was sufficiently impressed to offer him a position as a payload officer at JSC, working on the integration of military payloads into the Shuttle, with the hint that it might stand him in good stead for possible future selection.

Two years later, in May 1980, after reviewing six thousand applications and interviewing 120 of those, NASA selected 19 new astronauts…including Ross! In fact, two of Ross’ office mates – Mike Lounge and Bonnie Dunbar – had also been chosen. “We had a party at Mike Lounge’s house that evening to celebrate,” Ross said. “My kids were up in Indiana. School had just got out and so we had to call them and tell them that Daddy had been selected into the astronaut office.” The next 30 years turned Ross from just one member of an astronaut group which wryly called itself ‘The Needless Nineteen’ – overshadowed as they were by the larger, 35-strong 1978 class – into a ‘career’ space voyager, cut from the same mould of longevity as John Young or Story Musgrave.

Yet, for Ross, it is John Young who will always remain his personal hero. Talking to the NASA oral historian in February 2004, he explained his reasoning: Young had also launched seven times – one of them from the lunar surface – and, besides, Ross would willingly give up several of his Earth-circling missions for just a single flight to the Moon. Eight years later, in 2012, we are a matter of weeks from the tenth anniversary of Ross’ record-breaking final flight…and that must bring a measure of sadness to him, for few members of today’s astronaut office are even close to hitting or exceeding his achievement. “I hope it doesn’t last very long,” Ross said of his record, “because if it lasts long, that means we aren’t progressing the way that we want to progress. I hope that somebody goes well beyond my record of seven flights. It’s a nice personal thing to have, but for the country and for mankind, if they aren’t wiped out and exceeded, then we’re not doing the right thing.”

Given that astronauts place their mission patches one on top of the other on the right sleeve of their flight suit - one would hope that Ross has very long sleeves. Photo Credit: NASA

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