Insider Interview: Recent AHoF inductee Jerry Ross talks NASA and Commercial Crew
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — During a recent interview that SpaceFlight Insider conducted with this year’s U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Ross, the seven-time space flight veteran and former Chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Ross recently penned his autobiography dubbed Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer and is currently working on a children’s book — Becoming a Spacewalker- My Journey to the Stars, set to be released in August or September. During this interview, held just before his induction into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, Ross talked about a great many things, including his concerns about NASA’s current status and its involvement with private entities working on commercial delivery services.
As Ross talked about what it was like to not only be one of two men to have flown into space seven times (the other being Franklin Chang-Diaz Ph.D.) – he was asked about how he regarded the current path that NASA was on – as well as where he thought it ought to be going. Ross was plain spoken about his views and provided SpaceFlight Insider with the following interview on the subject.
SpaceFlight Insider: First, thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us today.
Ross: “It’s my pleasure, it’s always great to talk with you guys.”
SpaceFlight Insider: How do you view NASA’s current status in terms of human spaceflight?
Ross: “Well, as far as I’m concerned, the current U.S. human spaceflight program – is lost in space. We do not have a current plan, we do not have adequate funding to do anything from a NASA-built perspective.
The idea of going to an asteroid, to me, has no appeal. We ought to be going back to something that is very much akin to the Constellation Program as it was laid out by the previous administration. That had captured the imagination and total support of all the NASA centers, as far as I know. It had a good, sound approach of schedule. The funding was a little bit lacking I thought. But the overall plan that would allow us to build new hardware that would allow us to go back to the surface of the Moon and to establish a semi-permanent base there – where we would learn what we need to know about living on a foreign body while using in-situ resources to help us build and stay there. I think that those were all the right things.
We need to gain more knowledge about human beings in a partial-gravity environment for long periods of time. We need to know more about how to protect human beings in a higher-radiation environment and we need to use systems that will have minimal resupply requirements and that can go without repair or resupply for substantial lengths of time. To me the only places to gain that knowledge is either on the International Space Station, which is zero-gravity, or on the surface of the Moon, where you can live in a partial gravity where you can learn to deal with the dust environments as well as the other things I’ve already discussed. If something goes wrong? You’re only three days away from home as opposed to nine months away from home (in terms of a mission to Mars). This approach made a lot of sense to me.
However, there were some aspects as to what we were doing on the Constellation Program that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. We designed a rocket before we knew what the requirements were – that was one thing. We designed a capsule that had the ability to carry up to six people – when we didn’t need to have the capability to launch six people. This meant that the capsule was bigger and heavier than it needed to be. This dictated that it will probably have to land on water as opposed to land. It also made the rocket’s requirements grow which drove the schedule and the costs up.
So there were some things that we didn’t do right. In addition to that, neither the Bush Administration nor Congress provided enough money up front where you need it during a new developmental program where you are designing manufacturing and testing. All that being said? I still feel that the Constellation Program was the right answer and would have taken us on the path that would have seen humans set foot on the surface of Mars. That was an effort that allowed us to hire new and very talented people into NASA to support as well as all of the talent that was coming off of the shuttle program – was then primed and ready to work on Constellation.
With the cancellation of that program? We have lost all forward momentum and in fact, I think we are going backwards. The lead center in terms of human spaceflight, Johnson Space Center, is dead in the water and we have lost a tremendous amount of talent as well as all of our forward momentum. It’s going to be hard to recapture either of those at this point.
SpaceFlight Insider: How do you feel about the push toward space tourism? For that matter, given the proximity you had to it, what are your thoughts on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program?
Ross: “Well, I’m not sure what this ‘new path’ is exactly. Some of these new spaceports are going to be nothing more than big ‘cannon shots.’ I mean, Virgin Galactic people are spending a lot of money to essentially go on a thrill ride that goes up and down. It doesn’t go into orbit. It gives them a great view of the ground for a brief period of time, it gives them some zero-g time. They’d get more zero-g time, and far more safely, if they flew on a zero-g airplane as opposed to this ‘cannon shot’ that they are going to take. I really don’t understand how people view that as advancing the state of spaceflight when that is what Al Shepard and Gus Grissom did in the 1960s. They went up and came down – 15 minutes. I don’t see a big advance here. It’s not something that is adding to our knowledge, it’s not something that is pushing technology – to me, it’s not an exciting thing – sorry.
As far as the Commercial Crew Program that is going on right now? It has decimated NASA’s own programs. We’ve taken all of the money out of the Orion Program and out of the Space Launch System and all those other things – and they are coming along at a very slow pace on a very thin budget line. I’ve been told by friends at NASA that most of the money that is going into these Commercial Crew vehicles, some 85 percent of the money being spent on those programs – is NASA money – it’s not commercial money.
So, to call them ‘Commercial Crew’ vehicles – is a grave mis-justice, it’s a political term designed to get support for these guys. If you look at most of the folks who are doing these programs – most of them are strong political supporters of the current administration. It just galls me to see where are programs are going, it’s just very frustrating.
One of the things that really bothers me is, okay, one of these guys ‘wins’ and builds a capsule or semi-winged vehicle and we start launching our crews on that. We don’t have nearly the insight, nearly the confidence or knowledge about those vehicles and their testing, certification, safety, their margins and maybe we don’t even get to operate them, maybe we’re just paying for a ride. All of that is a poor way for the U.S. federal government to be launching their crew members into space when we ought to be doing it ourselves with the safest vehicles we know how to build and we ought to be doing it with our own teams to launch them and control them.
My concern is, we hire one of these guys and we get to fly for a while and then they have an accident. During which, they kill some of our crew members or maybe they kill somebody else when they’re launching for somebody else and they go bust, they don’t have enough money to keep going. So, where does that leave us then? We are right back where we started from. We don’t have our won capability to launch people into space. We’ll have spent all of that money on those guys and we don’t have anywhere to go.
To me? It doesn’t pass any of the sanity tests. I don’t have any problem with any of those guys going off and developing their own programs and producing their own hardware and flying whatever and wherever they want to – so long as they don’t hurt anybody else on the ground. But when they take NASA’s money and go off and do it and we don’t get to control it or have the insight that we want into systems? It’s not the right answer.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What do you think would be the best path forward for NASA at this point?
Ross: “I was very fortunate as a young person to have a very exciting space program being pursued by the United States. That involved an entire generation of people – my generation. In getting excited about what our country was going to do and finding out how we could get involved in it. It instilled in us an urgency to get a great education and to get involved with our country’s space program be it as an engineer or scientist or whatever. That greatly increased the number of students going into engineering and science in our country and while not all of them went into the space program – they certainly carried those educations into a wide variety of different endeavors which gave a great shot, a boost into our country’s economy.
The sixties were an exciting time for our country, there were a lot of things that were going on at the time, not all of them exciting, but overall, the space program was the ‘push’ that got our country going uphill very quickly in terms of its economy and its capabilities. In fact that is what is what has been pushing our economy upward for a long time now.
I would like to see our country dedicate itself to a new, exciting space program that would see U.S. astronauts back on the surface of the Moon and eventually on to Mars. I would like to see definitive dates set in a schedule, I would like it to be challenging – but achievable and I would like to see young people get excited about these opportunities just as my generation did – many years ago – and I would love to sit their on the sidelines, to watch – and to cheer them on.”
SpaceFlight Insider: Jerry, thanks for taking the time to share your thought with us today.
Ross: “No problem whatsoever, thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts!”
Ross is currently working on a children’s version of his book and, as noted, was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame alongside fellow astronaut Shannon Lucid on
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.