Veteran shuttle flyer Jerry Ross—the first human being to chalk up as many as seven discrete space missions—spoke touchingly and with humor yesterday (Tuesday, 26 August) at the funeral of his friend, astronaut Steve Nagel, who died from cancer last week, aged 67. Since their first meeting at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., almost four decades ago, Ross and Nagel “discovered we had a lot of things in common” and ended up flying two shuttle missions together. During his eulogy, Ross reflected warmly on the legacy of his former crewmate and their half-joking wish to someday regale each other at an Astronaut Retirement Home. “We would have two rocking chairs next to each other on the front porch,” Ross wrote in his speech, which he has kindly permitted AmericaSpace to use, “and enjoy giving each other a bad time while talking about our ‘similarities’.”
Nagel’s passing on Thursday, 21 August, was initially reported by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) and drew numerous tributes, including former astronaut Tom Jones, who wrote that he was “an exemplary role model for astronauts and space professionals” and added that Nagel was “a terrific family man.” He leaves behind his wife, fellow astronaut Linda Godwin—with whom he flew in space, together with Jerry Ross, on STS-37 in April 1991—and two daughters. “Steve was a great guy,” Ross wrote in his funeral eulogy, “and I am glad that he was one of my very best friends.” The pair met at Edwards in 1975. From February until December of that year, Nagel was at test pilot school, whilst Ross pursued the flight test engineer course, graduating in 1976.
The two men had many things in common. “We were in Bible Study together and we both loved to fly,” Ross recalled at Nagel’s funeral. “He was tall and thin and I wasn’t. We were both from the Midwest. Steve was born and raised in Illinois, near God’s country. I was born and raised in Indiana, which is God’s country! Steve went to school at the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign] and I went to Purdue University, a Big Ten Conference rival. These numerous ‘similarities’ were a source of a lot of fun over the years.”
As described in AmericaSpace’s obituary article, Nagel was selected as one of 15 pilot candidates in the first shuttle astronaut class in January 1978. He flew first as a mission specialist on Mission 51G in June 1985, then as pilot on Mission 61A in October 1985—establishing a personal and empirical record, which endured for more than a decade, for the shortest interval between two flights by a single astronaut—prior to his post-Challenger assignment to command STS-37. Nagel was joined on the crew by Ross, Godwin, Ken Cameron, and Jay Apt. “I was honored to be Steve’s best man when he and Linda were married,” Ross remembered in Tuesday’s eulogy, “and I really enjoyed reminding Steve that his second daughter is almost exactly the same age as my second granddaughter, even though he was much older than me!” (In fact, Nagel was 15 months older than Ross.)
During STS-37 in April 1991, the crew successfully deployed NASA’s Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO), which required a contingency EVA by Ross and Apt to manually unfurl its jammed high-gain antenna. Another spacewalk was also performed to evaluate Space Station Freedom hardware. In his NASA oral history, Ross expressed surprise that Nagel had chosen him—an EVA veteran—to lead the spacewalks. “I really expected that Steve was going to probably choose Linda and Jay to be the EVA crew members on STS-37, so that we’d get more experience base within the astronaut office,” Ross recalled. Nagel thought differently. “I think that’s a good thing to consider,” he told Ross, “but I’d look really stupid if we had to some kind of contingency EVA on a primary payload and you weren’t one of the two guys that was outside!”
STS-37 was not the last occasion on which Ross and Nagel flew together. Two years later, in April 1993, they served aboard STS-55, the second German Spacelab mission. Those flights provided a great source of humor. “We frequently discussed our ‘similarities’,” said Ross at yesterday’s eulogy, “and otherwise had a great time yanking each other’s chain!” On one occasion, they brought pennants from their respective alma maters and strategically placed them on interior shuttle walls, to make them as visible to the cameras as possible. “We argued for days about whose school pennant was larger,” said Ross. “We were each certain that ours was the larger one. Finally, we took both pennants down and placed them back to back. To the chagrin of both of us, they were exactly the same size!”
After STS-55, their paths diversified. Ross remained in the astronaut corps and flew three more missions, visiting Russia’s Mir space station and participating in the early construction of the International Space Station (ISS). For his part, Nagel initially worked within the Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance Office at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, then moved to the Aircraft Operations Division as a research pilot, chief of aviation safety, and deputy division chief. He retired from NASA in May 2011, less than a year before Ross himself.
Describing his departed friend as a “good and faithful servant” and thanking him for his friendship and for “my great memories of all the fun we had together,” Ross concluded his eulogy with a touching, though somewhat tongue-in-cheek, picture of how the two former crewmates hoped to see out their days. “Steve and I often joked that we would retire to the Astronaut Retirement Home and that we would have two rocking chairs next to each other on the front porch, where we could rock and enjoy giving the other a bad time, while talking about our ‘similarities’,” he wrote. “Now I am looking forward to someday joining him on that porch in Heaven.”
The author would like to express his thanks to Mr. Jerry Ross for entrusting and permitting AmericaSpace to reproduce the words of his eulogy in this article.