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Profiles In Badassery: Jerry L. Ross

This was a sad week if you're a Boilermaker. Yesterday, the Space Shuttle Program officially ended with Atlantis making a successful landing after its final mission. Purdue was proud to send 18 different graduates into space on the space shuttle, as every Purdue astronaut save Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Roger Chaffee (though Chaffee never officially made it to space) were veterans of the shuttle program. Of those 18, 15 went into space at least twice on the Shuttle. At times it seemed as if the P logo should be painted on the tail. It was a travesty that no Purdue astronaut was on the final mission this week.

While the American manned space program is on hiatus it means a Boilermaker badass will stay at the top for awhile as the record-holder for American spaceflights. To Jerry Ross, hitching a ride on the space shuttle is like me booking a flight from Indianapolis to Ft. Lauderdale. He has ventured into space seven times between STS-27 and STS-110, logging 58 days in space. That brings new meaning to the phrase, "Boiler Up!"

Early Life

Ross hails from the region, born on January 20, 1948 in Crown Point, Indiana. His wife is from nearby Sheridan, with Purdue being the perfect midpoint between those two towns. He graduated from Crown Point High School in 1966 and headed immediately to Purdue, where he earned a Bachelor's and a Master's in Mechanical Engineering by 1972. While at Purdue he was a member of the Air Force ROTC program, and he received a commission upon graduation with his bachelor's in 1970.

After finishing up his Master's in 1972 he entered the Air Force on active duty and was assigned to the Ramjet Engine Division of Air Force Aero-Propulsion Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He conducted computer-aided design studies on ramjet propulsion systems, served as the project engineer for captive tests of a supersonic ramjet missile using a rocket sled track, and as the project manager for preliminary configuration development of the ASALM strategic air-launched missile. As a Communications major, I have absolutely no idea what that means, but it sounds really flippin' cool!

A very good high school friend seems to be on the same track as Ross, so hopefully in a few years I can say I personally know an Astronaut. My friend Roman went into the Air Force and worked in R&D at Wright Patterson and is now in test pilot's school out at Edwards AFB in California. Ross graduated from the USAF Test Pilot Schools Flight Test Engineer Course in 1976 and was subsequently assigned to the 6510th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, California. While on assignment to the 6510ths Flight Test Engineering Directorate, he was project engineer on a limited flying qualities evaluation of the RC-135S aircraft and, as lead B-1 flying qualities flight test engineer, was responsible for the stability and control and flight control system testing performed on the B-1 aircraft.

All this time as a test pilot has helped Ross earn a private pilot's license. He has flown 21 different types of aircraft for over 4,100 hours total.

Astronaut career:

Ross was part of the Space Shuttle program almost from the beginning. He started working for NASA in February of 1979 as part of the Payload Operations Division at the Johnson Space Center. His job was basically to ensure that payloads in the Space Shuttle integrated well with the craft itself. The way I read this is that he made sure we didn't put too much crap on the Shuttle.

A little more than a year later Ross was selected to be an astronaut. When in space he mostly serves as an EVA specialist or a robotic arm specialist. In addition to his seven spaceflights he has worked at Mission Control on several other flights.

Ross' first spaceflight came on STS-61B in November of 1985. The mission launch three communications satellites while Ross conducted a pair of EVAs to demonstrate space station construction techniques. He was later scheduled to go into space again a few months later on STS-62A, but that mission was cancelled due to the Challenger accident. That mission would have been unique, as it was scheduled to launch from Vandenberg AFB in California instead of the Kennedy Space Center.

Ross didn't get to go back into Space until STS-27 in 1988. He was also a mission Specialist on STS-37 in 1991. Two years later he served as the payload commander on STS-55, which was also an extensive Spacelab mission. I remember Spacelab from elementary school when my class got some seeds that had been in space and we grew them along with regular seeds to see if there was any difference.

By 1995 Ross was a well-respected astronaut and member of NASA. His expertise in the area of payload operations was unparalleled, so he was asked to go into space yet again as part of the second Shuttle mission that docked with Mir. His next mission in 1998 saw him as part of the crew that began construction of the International Space Station. STS-88 took the second component of the station into orbit and mated it with a Russian piece already in orbit.

In 2002 Ross hit a milestone that has only been equalled once, as he became the first person to be launched into space seven times. STS-110 installed a few more components on the International Space Station, and Ross set new records for American Spaceflight. He had his record ninth EVA operation and established a new record total of 58 hours and 18 minutes. That total may be higher, as the STS-27 operations are still classified and it is believed that Ross had an additional EVA on that mission.

Allow me to speculate on the badassed nature of going EVA. It is one thing to swim out into the ocean down in Miami with dangerous rip currents. Imagine losing power on your MMU or having your tether to the spacecraft somehow get severed. I am sure it is a sphincter tightening sensation that you're on the edge of flailing out into space helplessly, knowing the exquisite torture of living until your air runs out hours later. Ross has done this at least nine times, and that means NASA has had to compensate for the extra weight of his gigantic brass nuts trying to drag him back to earth.

Ross is clearly a badass of the highest order who still works with NASA as they move into the next generation of American spaceflight. He has been a test pilot (a.k.a. he flew things to make sure they worked, therefore they had a chance of breaking up around him), an astronaut (a.k.a., they strapped him atop a gigantic pile of explosives built by the lowest bidder and lit a match) seven times, and an EVA operator (explained above). If that's not a Profile in Badassery, I don't know what is.