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Jerry Ross during an unplanned spacewalk to fix the balky Compton Gamma Ray Observatory on his third mission in 1991. (NASA)

NASA’s Frequent Flier

After logging nearly 1,400 hours in orbit, Jerry Ross reflects on spaceflight past and future.

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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.

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