When astronaut Jerry Ross launched into space for the first of his seven world record-setting flights tying him for the most space launches of any human, a nearly full moon hung in the sky over Kennedy Space Center. It was a night launch in November of 1985 aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, an orbiter he would come to know very well as the vehicle for five of his seven flights.
Ross, a retired Air Force Colonel, engineer, and now retired astronaut also held the record for most number of spacewalks and spacewalking time by a U.S. astronaut until passed by International Space Station crew member Michael Lopez-Alegria.
As he details in his recently released book, “Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer,” none of his spaceflights or spacewalks ever felt routine. “I feel fortunate that I felt like a kid in a candy shop every time, even on my seventh flight,” he said when I spoke to him today via phone from his home in Houston. “I loved every aspect of it from launch to landing. I wanted to let out a whoop of glee when I stepped out for my first space walk, I was so excited to finally have the opportunity. But I thought they would think I had lost it, so I didn’t.”
I’ve long suspected that first-time astronauts don’t get much sleep, and it turns out I was right. When I asked him about his first night in space, apparently that full moon came in handy.
“I spent most of the entire first night looking out of the windows,” Ross said with the excitement of the memory seeping into his voice. “We were flying upside down so the payload bay and the windows on the aft flight deck were facing right at the ground. I took my sleep sack up to the flight deck and tied it off on the floor so I was floating, staring straight out. With the full moon, it casts so much light even in space, you can see parts of the dark side of the planet you wouldn’t normally see. Every 45 minutes you get a sunset and a sunrise, and the light and the heat on my face would wake me up each time. Each pass of the earth is at a slightly different angle, so I saw parts of the planet none of the other crew did because I stayed up to look out.”
Ross explained that on his first five flights, he never got more than five hours of sleep a night due to the adrenaline, the long schedule, and the sheer number of tasks that he had to think about completing. “You try and wind down your activity level, but I wasn’t really successful at that.”
As Chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office, he was a critical member of the International Space Station team from the launch of the first component to the completion of the station. He’s been part of the preparation of every piece of hardware and crew assembly task.
“It was a great feeling to see the assembly finally complete. The most satisfying aspect was that we never had a hiccup in any assembly tasks. We tested everything on the ground first and found a lot of things that would have brought the station assembly process to a halt. I’m excited to see the station continue to produce science and demonstrate how longer duration space flight affect humans and how we can develop better systems to manage energy and expendables to allow for longer and longer missions.”
In that role, he was also part of preparing space shuttle crews at the astronaut crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center. As a veteran flier, he passed as many tips forward to first time flyers and space walkers as he could to make sure that they soaked up the moments and took a second to take a mental snapshot. “Once it’s all over, that’s all you’ve got.”
THIS WEEK IN SPACE:
Space Station Flies Past Full Moon (February 25, 2013): Tonight, when the full “Wolf Moon” rises in the sky, east coast viewers will also be able to see the space station streaking across the sky. To see when and where, check http://www.spaceweather.com/flybys and type in your zip code.
Watch Live Launch (March 1, 2013): SpaceX is targeting 10:10am ET this Friday, March 1st to launch an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station. You can watch coverage of the launch on NASA TV at http://www.nasa.gov.