One would think that reading about the adventures of astronauts would never get repetitive. This, however, is not true. There are a lot of similarities that these brave men and women share, and sometimes this is reflected in their accounts. Therefore, when AmericaSpace read Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer by the most-flown astronaut in NASA history, Jerry Ross, we were pleasantly surprised to see that it was a fresh look at the life of an astronaut. Ross penned the piece along with author John Norberg for the Purdue University Press.
In it, Ross details the experiences that guided him on the path to becoming an astronaut. This book is unique in that his wife, Karen, as well as their children, Scott and Amy, share their experiences as well.
Spacewalker details Ross’ experiences as a child, which set him on the path to becoming an astronaut, as well as his service in the U.S. Air Force working on ramjet designs and testing the B-1 Lancer bomber. The book progresses into his time at NASA smoothly, making for a very good read.
One trap that some writers fall into is writing what is, in essence, a technical dissertation and then expecting John Q. Public to gain a master’s degree in astronautical engineering just to understand what the writer penned. Thankfully Ross avoids this trap—his writing is neither hyper-technical nor is it “dumbed down.” The book is an excellent read and will make for a welcome addition to any space enthusiast’s library.
AmericaSpace had the good fortune of sitting down with Ross and discussing both his new book and his experiences as an astronaut. Ross shared his reflections on his accomplishments, as well as his thoughts on NASA’s current efforts.
AmericaSpace: Hi, Jerry. We would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Ross: “No problem. I appreciate the opportunity.”
AmericaSpace: So, let’s ask you a quick question, right off the bat: you never learned how to swim?
Ross: “Never. I make a good rock.” (Laughs)
AmericaSpace: One of the things we noted that set your book apart from other astronaut accounts is that every so often, Karen, your wife, and Amy and Scott, your children, share their experiences as well. What prompted that?
Ross: “That was mostly the idea of John Norberg, my co-author on Spacewalker. He had come down and conducted a series of interviews with me and my family members, and then he took it back and transcribed it. I think folks will enjoy reading some of my family’s insights.”
AmericaSpace: Where did the idea to write this book come from?
Ross: “Being an engineer, writing a book was actually the last thing on my mind. During my time as an astronaut, there were numerous times that things would happen that after my fellow astronauts heard them they kept saying, ‘You should write a book!’ During the last two years of my career, I started to think that this probably wasn’t a bad idea and started to jot things down.”
AmericaSpace: In your book you highlight the complex and risky nature of space flight. How do you feel about NASA’s plans to use smaller firms to launch crews into orbit?
Ross: “It makes me quite concerned that we’re turning over that responsibility to other organizations. I think eventually they will be able to do it. It is this myth that these guys are doing it mostly on their own nickel. If you were to take a closer look at what is going on, NASA is providing probably at least 80 percent—if not more—of the money that is going to these different organizations that are attempting to design these to take crew members to low-Earth orbit. The thing that concerns me is that we aren’t going to have nearly as much insight or control over the design of the vehicles, the amount of safety and testing that’s built into them, and it’s still not intuitively obvious who will control them during launch and as they are in orbit. That makes me really nervous, having the United States of America strapping in U.S. citizens, employees of the government, into a vehicle that we have less control over.”
AmericaSpace: Few know as much about strapping into a spacecraft as you do, given that you have flown into space seven times. Do you have that ‘one’ special moment from your time traveling into the black?
Ross: “Well, there are a whole bunch of them and it is hard to pick just one. I’ve been asked repeatedly which was my best flight, and I always tell people that’s like trying to have a mother choose which one of her seven kids is her favorite. That’s very hard to do. I can recall many moments: obviously the first time I stepped out of the hatch on my very first spacewalk on that first flight, repairing the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory which otherwise would have been a $680 million dollar piece of space junk … but I think that if I had to go back to one it would be that very first launch experience, which was far beyond what I had ever daydreamed or believed it would be like. It was much more dramatic, much more … scary isn’t quite the right word, but it comes pretty close! It was a very dramatic experience. It was just an overwhelming sense of awesome power being released and the air noise on the outside of the vehicle as we went through the lower atmosphere was incredible. It was a screeching sound like the paint and the tiles were going to be ripped right off the outside of the vehicle. That, along with all the vibration and noise of the launch event itself, was very, very impressive.”
AmericaSpace: A lot of other astronauts have stated that they had to apply multiple times. If memory serves, you were accepted on your second attempt, correct?
Ross: “That’s correct. When I was in the fourth grade, when I was 10 years old, I decided to go to Purdue to become an engineer and get into the space program. I really didn’t … astronaut wasn’t even really a term that had been coined at that point, and so the realization that I might have a chance to fly into space at some point didn’t come until quite a bit further along, and my goals kind of altered or were refined as time went on. I initially just wanted to get into the space business and help build rockets and satellites and help launch them and things like that. But, ultimately, I knew that if you’re going to be in the space business, the best place to be is at the top of the rocket, so that’s ultimately where my dream evolved to. As far as getting into the astronaut office on my second try, it wasn’t so much a surprise as it was the satisfaction of having achieved that long-sought goal since the fourth grade, or even before that actually, of flying in space. I had made scrapbooks and daydreamed about what it would be like, and now I had the opportunity to find out what it would be like.”
AmericaSpace: Some astronauts have been at a loss after having achieved the goal of flying in space. Buzz Aldrin has stated that after he went to the Moon he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. Did you experience that at all?
Ross: “My first flight was the twenty-third shuttle flight, and I listened to each of those crews—those first twenty-two crews that came back. In the early days of the shuttle program, we had a very detailed debriefing process in which all of the rest of the members of the astronaut office got to hear in a very detailed fashion everything that happened during those flights, what the crew members felt, what they saw, what they recommended for future crews as to what they should try to do or use or train for, and so I had a very good understanding from what other crew members had told me. So, I had all of that in my ‘database’ when I was out running or lifting weights in the gym. I would frequently daydream as to what it would be like for me. What was the experience going to be like? And yet, I can tell you that—I think that this is in the book—ten or fifteen seconds into my first launch, and despite the fact that I have a very vivid imagination, I literally caught myself thinking, ‘Ross, what are you doing here?’ It was so much more dynamic, so much more powerful than anything I had ever anticipated or daydreamed about. It caught me by surprise. Per your question, right after STS-61B touched down, the first thing on my mind was, ‘I want to go do that again!’”
AmericaSpace: So you had a lot of fun on orbit?
Ross: “Oh certainly! A lot of other astronauts would go to bed right when the timeline stated they should, but not me. I tried to maximize the experience. I would stay up and stare out the windows and take pictures if I could do so quietly. I seldom, if ever, got more than five hours of sleep per night during those early missions. My thinking was I didn’t know if I would ever get another opportunity to fly in space or not, and those early flights were fairly short, you know, five, six, seven days. My second one was only four days and nine hours, and you really want to maximize the experience because you didn’t know if you were going to get another chance to do it. Once I got selected for the astronaut office, I knew that was where I wanted to stay for as long as they would let me. I was asked many times if I was ready to stop flying and take some management position or something like that, and I respectfully declined all of those inquiries. I told them that I came to NASA to fly, and as long as I could do that, that’s what I wanted to do. Bottom line is that I never wanted to grow up and earn a living I guess.”
AmericaSpace: There are some folks out at KSC that when one of NASA’s Crawler-Transporters would be rolling by with the shuttle on it, they wouldn’t look up—they had gotten so accustomed to it. Did you ever get that way?
Ross: “No, I never did. I would see one of my friends that would grumble that they had to go do a suited run in the water tank (NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory), or they had to go fly in the T-38 to get the number of hours that were required for the month, or they had to go into the simulator again and that was getting boring to them, or something like that. I never got that way, thank God. I always felt like I was a kid in a candy store—every time that I went to work! What better way to earn a living than by doing what you love, and if you had the money you would pay people to let you do what you’re doing? So, I loved it all. In fact, on my seventh flight I still felt like a kid in a candy shop. I had that anticipation and that glee about what I was about to go do, and if some of the other guys were getting ground down by the training profile and everything else, I still was energetic and looking forward to every day. So, I feel very blessed that I came through the experience that way and that I was able to enjoy every aspect of it. I thoroughly enjoyed the people that I got to work with; they are a tremendous bunch of talented and dedicated people. That’s the part that I miss the most now: I miss the people. When I departed NASA in January, I was at the point where I frankly didn’t miss the work anymore, but I did miss the people.”
AmericaSpace: Astronauts are sometimes limited to the amount of flights that they can do because they are exposed to too much radiation. Did this ever present an issue for you?
Ross: “NASA analyzes that, and every year they give us a running total of what our exposure was. I never got anywhere close to the radiation limits. The folks that conduct the long duration flights—you know, six months or more—they’re the ones that start to add up the radiation exposure. I could have flown many, many shorter missions and never come close to the limits that were established by law and by NASA’s practice.”
AmericaSpace: We always like to ask astronauts that we interview which of the orbiters is their favorite. Do you have a favorite?
Ross: “By far, Atlantis is my favorite. I flew five of my seven missions on her, so I got no problem identifying which shuttle I prefer. There’s no doubt about that. I am definitely looking forward to seeing Atlantis at its new facility; I will be down at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in the last week of March.”
AmericaSpace: If there is one thing you could share with the public about this book, what would it be?
Ross: “Simple: if one child reads this book and realizes that a kid from Indiana can pursue his dreams and fly in space, and that means that he or she can too, that would be worth the effort!”
AmericaSpace: Thanks so much for chatting with us today, and good luck with your book!
Ross: “Thanks! It was fun.”
Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer will be released on Jan. 31, 2013, at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., and at the Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum, located in New York, on Feb. 1, 2013. Spacewalker retails for the following: Hardback, $29.95; ePDF, $14.99; and EPUB, $14.99.