Contact: Sasha Steinberg
STARKVILLE, Miss.—Of all the missions retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jerry Ross has undertaken in his 42-year career, he considers the encouragement of young people to be among his greatest.
“Things don’t happen in life in a straight line from point A to B. You’re going to have failures, setbacks and frustrations. My career was filled with them, but I didn’t let it stop me, and I was fortunate enough to ultimately get to where I wanted to go,” Ross told students and guests during his Wednesday [Sept. 19] visit to Mississippi State University as part of a special presentation on behalf of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
“I was just a normal kid who grew up in Indiana, but I had a dream of being an astronaut,” said the Astronaut Hall of Fame inductee. “I set a goal for myself. I studied hard. I wasn’t a straight A student, but I worked hard and I didn’t give up too easily when things didn’t work out the first time…It’s up to us to get young people to understand that and encourage them to pursue their goals.”
Davy Belk, head of MSU’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, commended Ross for contributions to his country as an Air Force officer and astronaut.
“Col. Ross’s accomplishments over 42 years, from receiving his commission as an Air Force officer to retirement from NASA in 2012, are a subject matter for the record books,” Belk said. “With nine space walks and 58 hours-plus on those space walks, he is No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 3 in the world for the number of space walks and the time spent on them. That is truly amazing.”
Originally from northwest Indiana, Ross said he became fascinated with the U.S. space shuttle program during childhood. He began his career as an Air Force ROTC student at Purdue University and went on to receive his commission in the Air Force in 1970.
Ross completed his master of science in mechanical engineering at Purdue and later served at the Air Force Research Laboratory. He is a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, where he worked as a test engineer before being assigned to the payload operations division at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Soon after, he was selected to be an astronaut, supporting the space shuttle program from the first launch in April 1981 to the last landing in July 2011. He also supported the International Space Station program from its inception and helped complete its assembly in 2011.
“I applied for the shuttle program in 1977 with 8,000 other people,” he recalled. “I was excited to be one of 210 who were invited to Houston for a weeklong series of interviews and physical tests, but I was very frustrated when I was not one of the 35 who were selected.”
Ross’s determination to become an astronaut ultimately fueled the next steps in his career. He sought guidance from the head of the shuttle program’s selection board, who offered him the opportunity to work as an Air Force detailee at the Johnson Space Center. Ross accepted the position, which involved integrating military payloads into the space shuttle from an operations perspective.
“It took me a year to work through the Air Force system to get that job assignment, but I did,” Ross said. “I went down to NASA in 1979, worked about a year to a year and a half, and then in 1980, the program had another selection. Six-thousand people applied, 120 interviewed, and I was extremely excited to be one of 19 that got picked up that time around.”
In addition to insight from his record-setting seven times in space, Ross’s presentation included recognition of senior civil engineering major Phong C. Ly of Brandon, MSU’s first recipient of the prestigious $10,000 Astronaut Scholarship.
In 2017, MSU became the only university in Mississippi invited to partner with the Orlando, Florida-based Astronaut Scholarship Foundation to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, along with NASA research priorities at the undergraduate level.
Tommy Anderson, director of the Office of Prestigious External Scholarships in MSU’s Judy and Bobby Shackouls Honors College, said a gift from the family of MSU alumnus Ray Gildea enabled the university to become the 40th top U.S. institution to partner with ASF.
Along with awarding one of the largest merit-based monetary scholarships for juniors and seniors in STEM majors, the ASF scholarship program provides opportunities for personal and professional development and helps facilitate lifelong relationships between the scholars and mentors including astronauts, executives and industry leaders.
“We are thrilled to have Phong as the first Mississippi State Astronaut Scholar who will carry on the legacy of what the original Mercury 7 astronauts and others across the board have done and will continue to do,” said ASF Director Laura Kutchens. “Phong is part of the ASF family now and forever.”
“ASF is looking for people who are highly motivated to do things that are going to make a difference,” Ross added. “I am so pleased to see someone like Phong who is well along in his career path, but has a long way to go and is going to do some marvelous things for all of mankind.”
Ly is pursuing an environmental engineering concentration through MSU’s James Worth Bagley College of Engineering and is a top student in the Shackouls Honors College. As president of the university’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Ly is working hard to establish a water distribution project in the Bolívar province of Ecuador.
“I want to say thank you to the original Mercury astronauts who believed in the future of American innovation and our generation of STEM students,” Ly said. “I am so grateful to Dr. Anderson and Mr. Gildea for providing this opportunity and believing in the talent of MSU STEM students.”
Ly said he also appreciates Assistant Professor Jason Street and Assistant Professor John J. Ramirez-Avila, who “took me on as an undergrad, nurtured my research skills and helped me grow as a person.”
“I also want to thank Dr. (Dennis) Truax,” Ly said of the leader of MSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “He has been so nice to me, and I can tell that he makes every moment a teaching moment. I hope to bring that empathy into my career as well.”
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.