From Alma Mater to Outer Space
Dayle Alexander, Purdue University
The Purdue Archives holds a few flight suits from its many alumni astronauts. The blue colored suits, decorated with the mission patches of past flights, are emblematic of an astronaut’s achievements on earth and in space. One in particular, sporting several but not all of his mission patches, is the flight suit of Jerry Ross (1). It is but one part of a large set of papers and personal belongings that he has donated to Purdue University as one of its particularly proud graduates. Looking at Ross’s flight suit elicits a strange sense of wonder. Who was the man behind the suit? What kind of life did he lead? What kind of astronaut was he, and what kind of Purdue student? The archives that bear his name reveal that Jerry Ross was a hard working student, was involved with many prestigious activates at Purdue, and regularly returned to his beloved Alma Mater. Purdue was a vital part of Ross’s life, equipping him with the skills and knowledge to become not only a record-holding, successful astronaut, but one of the best.
What is it that makes an astronaut? And, more interestingly, what is it about Purdue that makes so many of them? The astronauts of the Space Shuttle era differed from the early days of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Many astronauts only flew once or twice before they retired; few stayed with the program for their whole career, as this was and is a daunting profession. Most people know the basics about the American space program and its astronauts. They know some of the names and some of the feats. But few people really understand the rigor and extreme competition that astronauts had to endure to join and maintain this most prestigious of careers. Rick Houston has written of the fierce rivalries and jealousies, stating that most astronauts had a “fighter-jock” mentality, always striving to be first and the best. This was as true of the astronaut program back in the earliest days of NASA as of the most recent Space Shuttle program. Astronaut seems to be a glamorous job, but to be the best, you have to be good, you have to be tough, and you have to be competitive (2).
Twenty three of America’s astronauts have been Purdue graduates, largely thanks to the university’s Engineering and Reserve Officer Training (ROTC) programs. More than a third of U.S. manned spaceflights have had a Purdue graduate on board. David Wolf, one of the most recent of Purdue’s astronauts, graduated in 1978 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He is a veteran of four shuttle flights, including a fourteen day mission that, at the time, was considered to be the longest and most successful shuttle flight yet. Guy Gardner and John Blaha are both graduates of the Air Force Academy and have master’s degrees in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University. They have flown on two and five flights, respectively. Gardner went on to command the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, and later directed the joint Shuttle-Mir program for NASA. Blaha served on the Mir space station for four months conducting scientific experiments. John Casper, with a master’s degree in Astronautics from Purdue, has flown on four space shuttle mission. In addition, Mark Polanski is a veteran of three spaceflights, and Janice Voss a veteran of five flights (3).
Reaching further back, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, who both perished tragically in the Apollo 1 training accident in 1967, held Bachelor’s Degrees in Engineering from Purdue. Eugene Cernan, the last man to step foot on the moon and a veteran of three spaceflights, was also an Engineering graduate from the university. Then, of course, there is Neil Armstrong, first man to step foot on the moon and arguably the most famous astronaut of all time, and a Purdue Engineering graduate. As one university pamphlet describes: “Through their sacrifices and successes, Purdue astronauts have helped to conquer the barriers of space…. They have transformed the science fiction of yesterday into the scientific reality of today and inspired our visions of tomorrow” (4). Purdue rightfully takes pride in its astronaut alumni. Enter Jerry Ross, who joined the astronaut corps in 1980, as he had always dreamed, and who remained with NASA for over thirty years. Holding a shared record for number of spaceflights (seven in all, tied with Franklin Chang-Diaz), and nine spacewalks, he was also a leader of the recovery efforts following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. What is more: he graduated from Purdue University, attending classes in the same red brick buildings as Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, and Eugene Cernan.
Born in 1948, Ross grew up in Crown Point, Indiana during the 1950s. He was nine years old when the Soviet Union sent the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957, right at the start of the Space Race. He took a keen interest in these events very early on, piecing together scrapbooks and saving mementos, planning for his own spaceflight future. By the time he was in fourth grade, he had decided that he was going to attend Purdue to become an engineer and, eventually, an astronaut (5). From then on, he dedicated his life to this ultimate if demanding goal. He knew that NASA selected its handful of astronauts from a pool of thousands and realized that he needed much more than simple paper qualifications to succeed. He needed leadership skills, a hard work ethic, and the ability to overcome failures and obstacles. To Ross’ credit, he mastered these vital skills during his time at Purdue University.
Ross studied Mechanical Engineering at Purdue from 1966 to 1972, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, just at the climax of the Space Race and the moon landing. He took rigorous classes and worked hard, though he was no natural. Ross did not get straight A’s as an undergraduate, partly because of his busy extracurricular activities, which included the Air Force ROTC, student government, cooperative housing, and more. Ross had to learn how to be a good student and to manage his time with all these other campus responsibilities. His engineering courses at Purdue were extremely difficult, as they still are to this day. At the time, engineering students were required to take about one hundred and forty credit hours to complete their degrees, including difficult classes in the fundamentals: aeromechanics, physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, signals, structures, dynamics, fluid flow, propulsion and more (6). This unforgiving curriculum made, for Ross, many difficult days and sleepless nights. Faced with such challenges, Ross learned a great deal about himself and others, recognizing how to overcome obstacles to meet his goals. In an oral history interview Ross reflected on his time at Purdue, stating, “I think the most important lesson for me was that I didn’t know everything, but I was taught the way to find out the answers and how to attack an engineering problem…to find the solution and to optimize that solution” (7).
Ross also participated in Air Force ROTC, a program designed to train and educate college students as future military officers. Cadets took classes in military history and combat tactics, along with physical training and marching drills, in addition to their other studies. Ross came into the program by a strange coincidence. As a land grant university, Purdue required all students to take either physical education classes or ROTC. As a freshmen signing up for classes, the only regular physical education course left was swimming, and Ross could not swim. So, he decided instead to join the ROTC program. As with most of us, Ross’s life did not unfold exactly as planned. He had never seriously considered joining the military, disliking the idea of going to war and killing people, this at the very moment of the Vietnam War. But he joined anyway, accepting an ROTC scholarship that helped him pay for college, and committing him to four years in the military upon graduation. In another turn of fate, because of his relatively poor eyesight, he did not qualify for pilot school. Looking back on this, though, Ross felt that this obstacle turned out to be an opportunity. If he had qualified, he likely would have been sent off to the Vietnam War following his graduation. Instead, he was able to use his engineering experience and Purdue connections to stay for his master’s degree, then on to an engineering career for the Air Force (8).
Surprisingly, when Ross moved from Purdue’s undergraduate to its master’s program, he found his workload to be far less intense. He was limited in the number of credit hours he could take because of his half-time research assistantship, meaning he was going to school and conducting research at the Jet Propulsion Center (later renamed the Maurice J. Zucrow Labs). The Center was and remains a state-of-the-art testing facility and “international leader” for propulsion, gas dynamics, combustion, high pressure rocket engines, and turbomachinery and fluid dynamics (9). Majoring in thermodynamics and rocket propulsion as an undergraduate. Ross found that the rigor of his undergraduate studies allowed him to be even more successful in his master’s program.
He could work ahead in classes and take more time to understand the material. In many of his graduate textbooks in the Purdue archives, Ross’s handwriting lines the margins. A red pen has circled important facts and formulas on nearly every page. In his notebook for his jet propulsion class and his thermodynamics classes, he took notes on how to derive the thrust equation and the first law of thermodynamics, the basics of rocket science. Nearly every page of his Dynamics and Thermodynamics of Compressible Flow textbook are covered in his pen markings. Formula derivations and definitions are circled and outlined throughout the whole book, signaling Ross’ dedication to his studies (see Figures 1 and 2).
From these images, we see evidence of Ross’s more sophisticated learning habits. His graduate school notebooks were expertly organized. He kept everything including notes, tests, and syllabi. Ross even wrote in his grades for each class assignment, and his resulting course grade, which in the case of his Statistical Thermodynamics class was an “A,” a grade he did not receive often during his undergraduate career (see Figure 3). During his master’s program, Ross enjoyed his classes much more and was able to work more efficiently and smarter than he did as an undergraduate (10).
He owed much of this success to Dr. Cecil Warner, a professor who influenced Ross’s education and potential in the engineering industry. Dr. Warner was a consultant to Ross during his undergraduate senior design projects and, therefore, already knew him well. When Ross was looking into graduate programs, Warner invited him to join the Jet Propulsion Center’s team. In thanks, during one of Ross’s space missions, he brought a locket into space with him to give to Professor Warner and his wife, along with a signed photograph of Ross in space with the caption, “Thanks for helping make this possible!” (see Figure 4). Ross was partly on his way to becoming an astronaut, even after only just graduating college. In addition to having his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering, he now had experience testing rocket engines, and a future in the Air Force.
Leaving Purdue with strong recommendations from those within his master’s program, Ross went to work as a test engineer for the Aero-Propulsion Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. There he continued to study experimental ramjet engines, a high speed jet engine used on some military aircraft, applying the techniques and knowledge, as for example in Computer Aided Design, that he had learned at Purdue. “I found that my Purdue degree opened doors for me,” he wrote, “gave me additional opportunities to get maybe better jobs and to be challenged more with the job that I was given” (11). After graduating the Air Force’s test pilot school’s flight test engineer course, he worked at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There he became a flight test engineer for the B-1 bomber. He was responsible for the stability and controls of the aircraft, stationed in the back seat of the aircraft taking data and making test procedures. He was never an actual pilot in the Air Force, as his eyesight did not turn out to be good enough for pilot school. It was there, at Edwards, that Ross first gained experience in flying in and testing aircraft. He risked his life every time he went in the air. Crashes and test pilot deaths were a regular occurrence. Risk was a part of the job (12).
In 1977, Ross applied to be an astronaut for the first time, along with many of his friends and colleagues from both Purdue and the Air Force. He was not accepted, although several of his friends were. This was, in his opinion, one of his most painful life setbacks. Yet, he did not despair in the face of failure. Remaining at Edwards, he received multiple offers to continue rising in his career. He could have gone on to get his Ph.D., or perhaps teach engineering at the Air Force Academy, or even become an instructor at the test pilot school. All of these opportunities were significant, but none were ultimately what Ross wanted. Instead, he contacted NASA and asked for advice about how best to apply for the astronaut corps again in the future. A member of the astronaut selection committee told him that there was nothing specific that would keep him from being considered again and, in fact, offered Ross a job integrating military payloads into the Space Shuttle. This meant that whenever there were classified military experiments on the shuttle, he would be one of the military representatives working to prepare and maintain the project on the ground. He accepted this position and moved his family to Texas, where he finally began his career with NASA. Ross worked there for three years, until he was able to apply to be an astronaut again, this time successfully. He was accepted into the astronaut program along with Purdue graduates John Blaha, Roy Bridges and Guy Gardner (13). Finally Ross was an astronaut, due in no small part to Purdue and to the education and life lessons he earned while there.
Beyond academics and ROTC, Purdue shaped aspiring astronauts through extracurricular activities, helping them to become well-rounded persons. Ross was a member of the Circle Pines cooperative house, a community for students to live and work together and cultivate their personal and professional talents. He lived here from his first days on campus and rose to several leadership positions within the organization. Ross was also a member of Pi Tau Sigma, the national honors fraternity for Mechanical Engineering, which selects its members based on their schoolwork and engineering ability. He was on his sophomore class council, a position in the student government organization. Also a member of the Tomahawk Leadership Honorary, a leadership and service organization that also promotes campus involvement, Ross was elected his pledge class captain and happened to meet his wife while in that position. Tomahawk pledges are selected among students who are successful in campus activities, not just in their academics. Pledges learn the fight songs and cheers, as well as the deep histories and traditions of the campus, giving students a more in depth connection to their university. Ross donated his paddles, boards and composite photos from Circle Pines and Pi Tau Sigma and Tomahawk to the Purdue Archives, having collected and cared for these items long after his graduation (Figures 5, 6, and 7).
Along with all of this, Ross clearly enjoyed his time at Purdue. In his freshman year, the football team went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in history. Ross even wrote in his memoir about how he and his Circle Pines brothers tore down the goal post in Ross-Ade stadium after the very game against Indiana University that won Purdue its Rose Bowl bid. They carried the post back to the co-op house, where it still resides today. The 1967 Purdue yearbook, the Debris, displays a photograph of the Circle Pines brothers, including a young Jerry Ross, holding up the stolen goal post, a triumphant show of their pride for Purdue’s football team (Figure 8). Ross even attended the Rose Bowl game later that year with his family, a memorable, rare, and expensive California trip for small-town Midwesterners (14). Among those in attendance were Purdue alumni astronauts Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee. Ross kept his ticket to the game and it now sits in his archive at Purdue University (Figure 9).
These and other fond memories – of shaving cream fights with his co-op brothers and going on dates with his future wife – speak of Ross’s emotional and personal connection to the place. Who would not have wanted to be a Boilermaker back in those days? Purdue had won its first Rose Bowl. Campus was expanding. New buildings for nursing, management and computer science were going up. The athletic facilities were being improved. Mackey Arena was being built. The entire campus was growing and rising in prominence, right at the same time that the country was gearing up to win the Space Race.
Purdue’s football legacy has reappeared several times in Ross’ spaceflight career. For example, during the Space Shuttle missions, NASA sent musical recordings to wake the astronauts up for the workday. These “wake up calls” have ranged from popular tunes, to movie themes, to several college fight songs, including the Texas A&M and Kansas University chants. “Hail Purdue” has been played at least three times, including for Ross, who was even awoken once to the Notre Dame fight song, one of Purdue’s old rivals (15). When he was on Space Shuttle “STS-110,” preparing for his ninth spacewalk, NASA sent him a very special wakeup call: the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band playing “America the Beautiful,” with the “I am an American” speech in the voice of the band, Roy Johnson.
This sequence is played during the band’s pregame show at every home football game. Written in 1967, at the peak of the Space Race, just before the moon landing, the speech relays a deep sense of patriotism. “I am an American,” it reads. “They are plain words, those four. You could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them clear across this bright autumn sky.” The audience then recites the final four words along as the American flag unfolds on the football field. “Thank you for the great music!” Ross relayed back to NASA. “I really appreciate it. It’s one of the tremendous traditions of Purdue University, the origin of many of our country’s astronauts and it really is a nice way to be able to wake up and get ready for number nine” (16). Years later, the marching band invited Ross to pay the same tribute that they had given him. He became only the third person to ever read the “I am an American” speech in Ross-Ade stadium (17).
Jerry Ross has returned to Purdue many times to give thanks for its role in his life and to give some gifts and recognition back: as in the significant interview or dinner, lecture or book signing. In 2011, he returned with Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and Drew Brees for the National Football Foundations Honor Dinner. He has also returned to offer oral-history interviews and to donate his papers and belongings to the Purdue Archives. His daughter, Amy, followed in his footsteps by studying engineering at Purdue, graduating to become a NASA engineer working on spacesuits. She even helped design a space suit glove that her father used on one of his record-breaking spacewalks.
Ross has also returned to his beloved hometown, Crown Point, numerous times since becoming an astronaut, often to inspire the young dreamers to follow their dreams, just as he did. His papers even contain artifacts from his days there, including a Crown Point High School license plate and programs from football games (18). One of his scrapbooks contains many pictures from a visit he made to Crown Point in 1985, just after his first spaceflight (19). He has made a point to contribute to the service and community-oriented 4-H youth organization, in which he participated as a young man. During one of his shuttle flights, he even carried seeds that he returned to Earth to be planted at various spots around the United States as symbols of his 4-H roots, and to illustrate just how anyone can be successful and reach for the stars. One of these trees was planted in Crown Point, not far from elementary school named after him, and which he helped dedicate (20).
This loyalty to one’s hometown and education is not uncommon when compared to the leading memoirs of other Shuttle astronauts. Chris Hadfield, for example, mentioned the two Canadian military colleges where he received his Mechanical Engineering degrees, and spoke of his successes as rooted in his military experiences. The memoir is more about what being an astronaut has taught him in his life, rather than about what taught him to become an astronaut (21). Thomas Jones, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, has also written approvingly of his military background, as when he was introduced to rigorous academics and military life as a cadet (22). Clayton Anderson, a graduate of Hastings College and Iowa State University, wrote mostly about his hometown and his upbringing in Nebraska. He showed pride not in his own schools, but in the big red “N” of the University of Nebraska, a school nearby his boyhood home (23). Ross shared each of these experiences and emotions, if always with a closer and more personal connection to his Alma Mater, Purdue University.
As one of Purdue’s astronaut, Ross accomplished many feats. In addition to holding several records, he flew on a classified military space mission, spent time on both the Mir and the International Space Stations, and repaired millions of dollars’ worth of equipment during his spacewalks. In 2003, he served as the Chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office, providing technical support to shuttle and station crews by doing various duties back on earth. While he was in this role, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up upon reentering the earth’s atmosphere, killing all members of the crew and setting the shuttle program back several years. Ross was a leading member of the recovery effort and a vital part of the return to flight efforts. In 2004, he received a distinguished engineering alumnus award from Purdue University, honoring his achievements. In 2011, in perhaps the greatest tribute of all, he was given the honor of dealing the cards at the final Space Shuttle crew’s poker game before takeoff, which was a shuttle tradition, meant to use up all of the mission commander’s bad luck. They cannot leave for the shuttle until the commander loses a hand.
The Jerry Ross papers in the Purdue archive reveal many of the intricacies of this storied journey of becoming an astronaut. That journey was through Purdue, the university that taught him how to succeed and how to achieve his dreams. As he wrote, “Purdue was a perfect fit for me. There was and still is a Midwest work ethic that permeates the entire university. I couldn’t have made a better college choice. Purdue provided me with a great education and allowed me to grow personally. It gave me opportunities for leadership” (24). With fair bit of luck on his side from time to time, Ross’s college education also enabled him to make the right choices to reach his spaceflight goals.
1. Flight suit, circa 1980s, Box 83, Jerry L. Ross papers,1940-2013, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN [hereafter Ross papers]; The Purdue Reamer Club, A University of Tradition: The Spirit of Purdue, 2nd ed. (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2002), 144.
2. Matthew H. Hersch, Inventing the American Astronaut (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2013); Rick Houston, Wheels Stop: the Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program, 1986-2011 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), xiii.
3. “Cradle of Astronauts-AAE Distingushed Alumni,” Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2 December 2015, Resource Available Online.
4. Purdue University, “One Small Step, A Tribute to Purdue Graduates in the U.S. Space Program” (Poster, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, n.d.).
5. Jerry L. Ross and Karen Pearson Ross, interview by Tracy Grimm, 31 August 2012, Resource Available Online
6. A. F. Grandt, W. A. Gustafson, and Lawrence T. Cargnino, One Small Step: The History of Aerospace Engineering at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1995), 206-296.
7. Ross and Ross, interview by Grimm.
8. Jerry L. Ross and John Norberg, Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-setting Frequent Flyer (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2013), 52.
9. “History of the Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories,” Resource Available Online; John Norberg, Full Steam Ahead: Purdue Mechanical Engineering Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2013), 50-55.
10. Ross and Ross, interview by Grimm.
12. Ross and Norberg, Spacewalker, 57-60.
13. John Norberg, Wings of their Dreams: Purdue in Flight (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2003); Ross and Norberg, Spacewalker, 76.
14. Ross and Norberg, Spacewalker, 35.
15. Colin Fries, Chronology of Wakeup Calls, NASA History: Wakeup Calls, 13 March 2015, Resource Available Online.
16. STS-110 Crew wakeup call, Flight Day 9, “I Am an American”—The Purdue University Marching Band,” April 2002, NASA Shuttle Audio Gallery, Resource Available Online
17. Kathy Matter, “Astronaut Jerry Ross to read ‘I Am An American’ at Homecoming,” Purdue News, 26 September 2002, Resource Available Online. The two others were Roy Johnson, the band’s announcer, and Al Wright, the band director who wrote the speech.
18. Crown Point Bulldogs license plate, circa 1960s, Box 1, Folder 2, Ross papers; Crown Point High School football programs, circa 1960s, Box 1, Folder 3, Ross papers.
19. Scrapbook from visit to Crown Point, circa 1985, Box 56, Folder 2, Ross papers.
20. Scrapbook from the Purdue 4-H department, circa 1990, Box 56, Folder 4, Ross papers.
21. Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (New York: Back Bay Books, 2014), 23-50.
22. Thomas Jones, Skywalking: An Astronaut’s Memoir (New York: Smithsonian Books, 2006).
23. Clayton C. Anderson, The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 17-46.
24. Ross and Norberg, Spacewalker, 30.