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.”
I’m wondering about sleep on the space shuttle. Does being in a zero-G environment affect that?
Well, there are two effects—for me, anyhow. First, I had such an adrenaline flow going that it was hard to get to sleep, especially on the first night or two [of a mission]. In fact, I would say on my first four or maybe five missions, I never got more than five hours of sleep any night. It was partly because of the adrenaline, but it was also because you’re so busy during the day that you want to have an opportunity to get to the window and look out at God’s beautiful creation floating by below whenever you can. That means that you take advantage of the normal sleep hours to do that. So I took the opportunities to stay up for extended periods of time during the sleep periods to see as much of the ground as I could.
There’s another aspect of sleeping in zero gravity, and that’s the fact that most of us had lower back pain that was probably due to us not being totally at ease in the zero gravity environment. I found out with experimenting that if I let my back arch back, like I was doing a dive off of a board and I was diving back looking for the surface of the water, that that abnormal stretching of the back was something that would help to relieve the discomfort in the lower back. So I think unconsciously in zero gravity what I and most of the other crew members were doing was contracting the stomach muscles to put ourselves into a fetal position, and doing that hour after hour would tend to bind up the muscles in the lower spine.
Did you feel comfortable being an openly religious astronaut in such a science/engineering-based organization as NASA? Did you ever feel the need to hide your faith?
I never felt that I had to hide it. I sometimes wondered if it would be a hindrance to being able to have a good career, but it never turned out to be that way. And frankly, there are a lot of Christians, and we had Jewish members of the astronaut corps. It was just like the rest of the United States—I think everybody was pretty tolerant of each other. What we did at work was what we did at work, and I tried to carry my Christian faith but I didn’t wear it on my sleeve. I just did what the good book says, which is to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. I did ask a couple of people in the astronaut office early on that I knew were Christians if they’d ever had any problems with it, and they said no. So it was of minimal concern from then on.
Did you ever sense a divine presence in space? Or see evidence of God during your spaceflights?
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.
Why did you decide to write a book?
There are at least five reasons. First off, throughout my entire astronaut career, when I went out to do public speaking, I always tried to concentrate on going to schools. I think it’s part of my Christian beliefs that I wanted to talk to young people and to tell them that they were very special. They were each made by God with a very special set of talents, likes, and dislikes. It was up to them to figure out what those qualities were and how they should apply them to their adult life and career.
Secondly, I just wanted to explain to people what it was like to ride on rockets and what it was like step out into the vacuum of space and do spacewalks.
Third, I wanted to give them a behind-the-scenes, more-human feel for the space business. I tried to put in some hopefully humorous side stories about various crews and events that happened.
Next would be that I wanted to give people a better understanding of how my faith carried me through my life and career and how it supported me along the way where I frankly got a little bit frustrated or things didn’t happen the way I wanted them.
And last I wanted to write down in my own words what grandpa did so my three young granddaughters will be able to understand what I did throughout my career.
What is your favorite junk food?
Malted-milk balls. In fact, I’ve had them packaged and launched for me in our fresh-food locker on every one of my flights.