Jerry Ross might be the most-traveled astronaut you’ve never heard of. A veteran of seven spaceflights (a record he shares with Franklin Chang-Diaz), Ross flew during the space shuttle era, when being a celebrity was no longer part of an astronaut’s job description. Ross’ memoir, Spacewalker, was published in January by Purdue University Press. A lifelong Methodist, Ross explains how his faith guided his quest to become an astronaut. He spoke with associate editor Diane Tedeschi in March.
Air & Space: You flew on the space shuttle seven times. After landing, how long would it take you to recover?
Ross: Normally, most of my zero-G symptoms seemed to go away within a matter of hours. For about the first half hour, I felt extremely heavy. After that, I started to feel almost light: I think that’s because my body got used to fighting the gravitational force again. The touch sensors in my body were not back to 100 percent output, if you will. In fact, on just about every flight, for the first night or maybe two nights [after returning to Earth], lying in bed, I felt like I was hovering over the bed, not really being compressed into it by gravity. I knew I wasn’t floating in zero gravity—it wasn’t a daydream or something. But it was, again, I think a touch sensor change that the body wasn’t putting out, or at least the brain wasn’t hearing. Because of that, I never did any full-blown exercise for about the first five or six days after I got back on the ground. Some people would try to go out and run the next day and would strain a muscle or get a stress fracture because their body wasn’t back up to speed.
You did nine spacewalks. Did they always go as planned? Were there ever any glitches or times when you had to improvise?
Fortunately, most of the hardware worked pretty much as we had designed and developed it. So there weren’t too many “gotchas,” but I did do one unscheduled spacewalk on my third space shuttle flight, STS-37. We were using the robotic arm on the shuttle to lift the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory out of the payload bay in preparation for it being released into orbit. And the high-gain antenna on that satellite did not deploy remotely as it had been commanded to do by Goddard Spaceflight Center. We had trained for and were prepared for going out and doing an emergency, or unplanned, spacewalk. So we got into our spacesuits and went outside to see if we could determine what the problem was and if we could fix it. If we hadn’t been able to, frankly, it would have been a 35,000-pound, 630- or 680-million-dollar piece of space junk.
Linda Godwin, who was driving the robotic arm, moved the satellite close to the starboard sill where I could reach from the sill up onto the spacecraft, climb around on it, to the backside where the antenna was, and give it a good visual inspection. I talked to the ground about what I saw. I also informed them that I thought I had a good location where I could safely work and try to jostle the antenna boom free. The concern being that we had some very large hydrazine propellant tanks right underneath where I was. They were very thin-skinned, and you didn’t want to puncture a hole. So they thought about it for a brief period, and they gave me the go-ahead to see if I could free the antenna. After several fairly good pushes, it started to rock its way free, and eventually it did spring out. We then were able to manually deploy the antenna.
Regarding your first spacewalk, that initial moment when you step out of the shuttle, is there anything that can prepare you for the sight that you see and the feeling that you have of being so “out there”?
I had done, I think, seven spacewalks as the capsule communicator and as a support crew member on the ground, talking to the crews outside before I got a chance to fly my first mission and do my first spacewalks. And I can tell you that once I got safely onto orbit, I was concerned that the spacesuits wouldn’t check out or that the space shuttle would have a problem and that we’d have to terminate the mission and go home before we got to do our spacewalks. Fortunately, neither of those happened and I was able to do two spacewalks on my first flight, as planned. As soon as I got my head out the hatch on that first spacewalk, I wanted to let out a yell of glee or whoop of happiness or whatever you want to call it. But I knew that my crewmates and probably the ground would think that I had flipped my lid and would tell me to get back inside quickly and that would have been the end of my EVA experience. Fortunately, I was able to control that emotion. You are face-to-face with the universe. The best way I can describe it is if you’re looking at the ground, it’s kind of like a really high-flying, really fast-flying hot-air balloon and you’re just looking out the edge of the gondola and you get to watch the Earth going by. It’s just an incredible experience. And the helmet visor gives you basically a total ear-to-ear peripheral vision as well, so it’s not like looking through a straw or out of a window.
Did you ever feel vulnerable during a spacewalk? Maybe worry about colliding with orbital debris? Or were you too busy to be worried?
I think that’s probably one of the last things that anybody would spend time thinking about. You’re right that when you’re out there, you’re focused on what you’re doing. Many times I’ve had crew members come back inside and say that they were outside the whole time and they really never even took a peek at the Earth going by. After I was no longer flying [as an astronaut] and became chief of the vehicle integration test unit, part of my duties were to run the astronaut quarantine facility at the Kennedy Space Center, so I lived with the crews up until they time they launched. I would talk to all the rookies that I knew were going to go on spacewalks and say, “Look, you gotta take a chance, a little time to just make some mental snapshots of what you’re experiencing out there.”