Retired astronaut Jerry Ross figures he spent upwards of 1,200 hours in the NASA Full Fuselage Trainer preparing for his seven space shuttle flights. It was with mixed emotions that Ross spoke earlier this month at a dinner in his honor, held next to the trainer, which is now on exhibit at Seattle’s Musuem of Flight.
“It’s kind of sad to see it here, frankly,” Ross said of the trainer. “I’m glad that you have it; I’m glad that it didn’t go to a scrap heap somewhere. But I know that the fun years of the space shuttle program are behind us.”
Still, Ross acknowledged that the space shuttle, in use for more than 30 years, was getting a bit worse for wear.
“It was probably time to retire it and go on to something else,” he said. “Unfortunately, that something else hasn’t happened yet.”
Ross spent a couple of days at the museum promoting his new book, Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer. He said that a main reason he wrote it was to encourage young people to chase their dreams.
“I wanted them to understand that I had a dream as a young person, and I felt that God had designed me to be an astronaut,” Ross explained. He kept scrapbooks about space as a kid in Indiana, and learned from the news articles that he clipped that engineers and scientists, especially those from Indiana’s Purdue University, were playing an important role. Ross said his dream was crystallized when Sputnik went up.
“I was in fourth grade, and based upon what I knew I decided I was going to go to Purdue University, that I was going to become an engineer, and that I was going to become involved in our country’s space program,” he said. “I really didn’t know what an engineer did, but I knew it was engineers who were doing what I wanted to go do.”
He did it, and flew on as many space missions as anyone. Space runs in the family—his daughter is a Purdue engineering grad and works on space suit design, and his wife, who majored in home economics at Purdue, eventually headed up the program that made food for the shuttle flights.
“I’ve told people for many years the only time I got a home-cooked meal after she took that job was when I flew in space,” Ross joked.
Ross said that being launched into space aboard the space shuttle was an incredible experience.
“One-hundred-eight feet tall, weighed four-and-a-half million pounds,” he said of the shuttle. “We generated over six and a half million pounds of thrust at liftoff. And that’s a real kick in the pants. Disney would have had to get a double-E ticket for that!”
Ross said that he was well prepared for his first flight, but that it was really impossible to actually know how it would feel.
“About 15 seconds after lifting off, I thought to myself, ‘Ross, what are you doing here?’ There was much more shaking and vibration, there was much more noise as the wind was just screaming by the windows of the orbiter, it was much more exciting than I expected.”
He said he wasn’t exactly afraid, but added, “You can’t strap on six and a half million pounds of thrust and not be a little bit apprehensive about it. If you aren’t, then you really don’t understand what’s happening.”
“I went back six more times, so it wasn’t too bad,” he added.
Ross said the only time he came close to quitting was after the Challenger disaster. He had a young family to support, and they discussed it at length.
“It took some serious thought and prayer,” he said, but they decided not to quit. “If we did we would let down our friends who we lost on the Challenger. To allow them to die and not pursue with even more vigor and dedication what they had done would have been a mistake.”
The Museum of Flight held the dinner next to the shuttle trainer in homage to a similar event NASA hosted for Queen Elizabeth II in Houston in 1991. The dinner with Ross was well-attended, and indications are that the museum will host more such events to allow some low-key and more personal conversation with celebrity aviation visitors.