NASA’s Frequent Flier
After logging nearly 1,400 hours in orbit, Jerry Ross reflects on spaceflight past and future.
- By Diane Tedeschi
- AirSpaceMag.com, April 08, 2013
(Page 3 of 4)
Well, I see evidence of God everywhere, everyday. So that’s pretty easy to say, yes, I did. I did have—I talk about it in the book in fact—on my second spacewalk on my third space shuttle mission, I was out on the end of the robotic arm, being held high above the payload bay of the orbiter. The other three crew members inside the orbiter needed to concentrate on helping my spacewalking buddy, Jay Apt, so they told me to take a break while they focused on assisting Jay in his procedures. It was nighttime, so I turned off my helmet lights and I bent back a little bit and I was probably 40 feet above the payload bay of the orbiter, so I was away from the lights and the glare of them. I let my eyes adapt [to the darkness] and stared off into infinity. And all of a sudden, out of the blue or out of the black, whatever you want to call it, I had this sudden sensation come over me that I was at unity with the universe. A strange feeling for an engineer, for sure. It was a reassurance that I was doing exactly what God had designed me to do, using my brain and my hands outside repairing satellites and building structures in space. What a great confirmation that I had followed the right path and I was doing exactly what God had designed and intended me to do. An incredible feeling.
Are you satisfied with what the space shuttle program accomplished?
I would have to say yes. I think that the vehicle gave us an incredible capability. It helped open up access to space to a larger section of the population in terms of talents and capabilities, ages and sexes, and a cross-section of our country—and beyond, as we had quite a few international partners fly on the vehicle at times. It also helped us learn how to work together to design and build the International Space Station. It allowed us to take large segments up to the station to build it and to resupply it and get it up and going. And it allowed us to do a lot of things we would never have been able to do with just a capsule. So it was a tremendous capability. Having said all that, I agree it was time to move on. For two reasons, primarily. Number one: It was time to get out of low-Earth orbit and start going back to the moon and then on to Mars. And we were never going to do that as long as we were flying the shuttle because it took up such a large segment of NASA’s budget. And it certainly occupied a huge percentage of [NASA’s] people.
Secondly, equally important if not more so, is the fact that, statistically, it was just a matter of time before we would have lost another vehicle and another crew with that orbiter. It had great capabilities but it also had some significant design flaws related to crew safety and survivability. As the vehicles got older, we kept learning more about them. Not all the things we learned did we like.
What is your opinion of where the current manned space program in the U.S. is headed?
Well, I personally think that the Constellation program that was laid out by the Bush administration was the right answer— to terminate the shuttle program and at the same time have another follow-on program that would have been flying by now had it not been cancelled. That would have led us back, I thought, in the right direction of going back to the moon…and then to Mars. The biggest problem with that plan was that both the White House and Congress did not send enough money to allow us to do what they told us to do in the timeframe they told us to do it.
So we’re now in this environment where NASA is funding three companies to go build three different types of crew commercial vehicles. In addition, we’re also pursuing our own NASA vehicle called Orion, which has been raised from the dead, basically, by Congress. But it doesn’t have a very exciting schedule right now: I think the first flight is still 2017, or something like that. So it’s very frustrating.
And I’m nervous about the commercial vehicles from the standpoint that NASA doesn’t have the control over the degree of engineering and safety and everything else that goes into the vehicles. So if and when we use one of those vehicles to fly our crew, we don’t have—I wouldn’t have—the level of confidence in the safety of those vehicles based upon what I know of what it takes to get things done from previous NASA programs. The other issue is, those commercial guys do not have, I’ve never seen one with a valid business plan that says they can be profitable if NASA isn’t their major customer.