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Frank Gray

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Col. Jerry Roos, NASA astronaut, Indiana native and Purdue graduate, spoke Wednesday afternoon with members of the Society of Physics Students at IPFW.

Students hear tales, warning from astronaut

Back in 1958, no man had yet flown into space, but Jerry Ross, a fourth-grader living on a farm in Crown Point, decided that’s where he wanted to go.

Lots of people want to go into space. When Ross, who graduated from Purdue University with a master’s degree in 1972 and joined the Air Force, applied to become an astronaut in 1977, he was one of 10,000 applicants. He got turned down.

But he applied again, this time one of 6,000 applicants, and was accepted. Since then, he has flown on the space shuttle seven times, taken nine space walks and helped assemble the International Space Station.

Ross spoke to two different gatherings of students at IPFW on Wednesday, describing what it’s like to take off in the shuttle, experience weightlessness, and just stare into space while floating in space outside the shuttle.

But he also lamented the lack of space activity on the part of the United States and the fact that American astronauts currently have to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket if they want to get there.

“We’re forfeiting our lead in space to Russia and China,” Ross told students. “Humans were intended to explore space. The Chinese say they are going to go to the moon.

“Our economy is coasting on what we learned from Apollo and the space shuttle,” he said.

Space exploration gives young people something to dream about, Ross said, “But we’re losing a tremendous amount of talent” in NASA. “People are leaving in droves” because the agency has no goals and no money.

A program during the Bush administration to design a new space capsule and a new heavy lift rocket was a good idea, but then the current administration canceled those plans on the basis that it was too expensive.

“It was a knife into the heart of NASA,” Ross said.

Congress eventually reversed the administration’s position. “We’re back to building a new capsule and heavy lifter,” he said.

Ross, though, dismisses privatization of space flight.

“Privatization is a bogus word,” Ross said. When one speaks of private commercial space vehicles, most of that money comes from the federal government and NASA.

If the country decides to try to rely on private space companies, “If there’s an accident (Ross points out two shuttles have failed) the company will probably go out of business, and then we’ll be high and dry.

“We might be flying vehicles that are less safe than they should be,” Ross said. Space flight will be exciting, scary and risky, he said.

Ross added that commercial space flight is not what pushes new technology.

“A lot of technology in ambulances is from the space program,” including miniaturization and devices that let EMTs gather and transmit information to doctors waiting at the hospital, he said.

But Ross’ address wasn’t all grim news. He answered the usual questions about eating and going to the bathroom in space, and he told students that the scariest moment is “every launch.”

In a conversation after his address at IPFW, Ross noted that the first time he went into space, it was that particular shuttle’s 23rd trip. He said he had listened carefully to other astronauts’ detailed descriptions of what it is like to take off in the shuttle.

On his first trip, though, 15 seconds after liftoff, his thoughts were, “What am I doing here?” After all, everything was provided by low bidders, and everything was assembled by people with high school educations, he said.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.