Jerry L. Ross

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
BSME ’70, MSME ’72

For his pioneering accomplishments in the exploration of space as a shuttle astronaut, the College of Engineering is proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Jerry L. Ross.

The Path to the Stars

“I was in the fourth grade when the Russians launched Sputnik in October of ’57, and we launched our first satellite, Explorer I, in January of ’58,” Jerry Ross says. “I grew up with the space race and the threat of nuclear weapons being tossed both directions. What that meant in terms of putting satellites, and eventually men, in space captivated my imagination.”

As a young child, Ross made scrapbooks of satellite illustrations he found in popular magazines, even before the first satellites were launched into space. “I knew that it was scientists and engineers that were involved in designing and launching rockets and satellites,” he says, and he remembers the media focus on Purdue and its involvement in the nascent space race.

For Ross, a native of Crown Point, Indiana, the path to the stars seemed clear. “I decided in the fourth grade that I wanted to come to Purdue, become an engineer, and get in the space program,” he says, “and so that was where I pointed myself from a very early age.”

Ross met Karen, his wife to be, at the beginning of his second semester of his sophomore year. He held several different positions in the Circle Pines Co-Op House and was a member of Air Force ROTC.

A Saddle on a Rocket Sled

After completing his BSME in 1970, Ross signed on to the master’s of science in industrial administration program at Purdue. The degree would have allowed him to enter the management side of engineering, but he was offered a research assistantship working on jet propulsion systems in the School of Mechanical Engineering, a continuation of his senior research project. “That was one of the best decisions I ever made—to get an advanced engineering degree,” Ross says.

He worked in Purdue’s jet propulsion laboratory alongside officers from the U.S. Air Force. “When it came time for me to enter the Air Force, I did not know where I would go for my first assignment,” he says. “One of the officers pulled out a phone book for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and gave me a phone number for the executive officer at the USAF Aero-Propulsion Laboratory, and within about two days he had me assigned there.”

Ross worked on a number of projects at Wright-Patterson, including a rocket sled “where we pushed a ramjet missile on a sled track out to speeds of 2.7 mach [over two and a half times the speed of sound] in ten to twelve seconds,” he says. “The guys offered to put a saddle on it for me, and I opted not to take it.”

Ross was accepted into the Air Force’s Test Pilot School as a flight test engineer student in 1975. “It’s risky,” he says of this career move, “but it’s also a very fascinating and a very rewarding job.” It was during this time frame that NASA unveiled plans for the space shuttle. “To my way of thinking,” Ross says, “having a flight test engineer’s background with a master’s degree level of education would be very beneficial.” Turns out that NASA agreed, and in 1980 Ross was selected as an astronaut and trained as a flight mission specialist.

“So while I started out in the fourth grade not thinking about becoming an astronaut,” he says, “by the time I got into Purdue and beyond, I had taken a pretty good course to be successful.”

Walking in the Void

Ross was the first person to be launched into space seven times, and he still holds that record with one other NASA astronaut. He holds the current record for the most U.S. spacewalks (nine) and space-walking time (58 hours and eighteen minutes). Ross has orbited the Earth more than 743 times, helped to deploy the Gamma Ray Observatory, flown with the second space shuttle to dock with the Russian space station Mir, and visited the International Space Station twice. He has spent more than 1,393 hours in space.

These days Ross oversees a team of 20 engineers in the Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers that provides operational support to astronaut crews as they prepare to fly.

So what’s it like to walk in the void of space?

“No matter how much you imagine it’s cool,” Ross says, “it’s cooler.

“Working in a spacesuit is difficult; you are constrained, it’s a pressurized balloon, literally, so anytime you do any motions with your hands it’s like squeezing a rubber ball, and when you do that for six or seven hours outside you can imagine how fatigued your hands and upper body can get,” Ross says.

“But it is still one of the most fascinating and rewarding things a human being can do. Up there, you can see the earth ear-to-ear.”

2003 Chief, Vehicle Integration Test Officer, Johnson Space Center
2002 World-record 7th flight into space;
Flight Achievement Award
2000 Retired from the Air Force;
Honorary Doctorate of Science, Purdue;
Outstanding Mechanical Engineer Award, Purdue
1999 American Astronautical Society, Victor A. Prather Award
1998 Lead space walker on the first International Space Station assembly mission
1995 Mission specialist onboard second space shuttle to dock with Russian space station Mir
1993 Payload commander on Spacelab D-2 shuttle mission;
Deputy Chief of Astronaut Office
1991 Mission specialist on the Gamma Ray Observatory flight
1990 Victor A. Prather Award
1988 Mission specialist, Department of Defense shuttle mission
1985 Mission specialist deploying communication satellites for NASA;
Victor A Prather Award
1980 Selected as an astronaut, NASA
1979 Joined NASA, assigned to Payload Operations Division, Johnson Space Center, payload flight controller
1976 Graduated from the USAF Test Pilot School’s Flight Test Engineer Course, assigned to the 6510th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base
1972 Assigned to the Ramjet Engine Division, Aero-Propulsion Laboratory, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
1970 Commissioned into the U.S. Air Force

BSME ’70, MSME ’72, Purdue University