SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Jerry Ross was floating outside his spaceship in darkness, surrounded by the vast silence of space.
Although he was hurtling around Earth, Ross felt as though he were gliding in a hot-air balloon. The only way he could tell he was moving, and that time was passing, was by gazing at the planet 280 miles below.
He'd been out on spacewalks before, including just the day before when he saved a scientific observatory with a powerful shake of its stuck antenna. But this time was different. As he relaxed and soaked in what he was doing and where he was at that moment, Ross had a sudden sensation, as forceful as a light bulb popping.
"I just had this minute to pause, and I really felt like I was doing exactly what God had designed me to do," Ross recalls. "I felt at one with the universe, and that's a strange thing for an engineer and a kid from Indiana cornfields to say."
Ross never spoke of that spiritual experience with his crewmates when the spacewalk ended April 8, 1991. But it's stayed in his heart and is especially meaningful as he gets set to embark on his seventh space voyage -- and another two spacewalks.
Already NASA's spacewalking champ, the 54-year-old retired Air Force colonel will become the first person to rocket away from Earth seven times when space shuttle Atlantis blasts off. Launch is set for Thursday.
The work awaiting Ross -- installing a 44-foot girder and cargo railway at the international space station -- builds on construction exercises he carried out on his first two spacewalks in 1985 and on his inspirational spacewalk 11 years ago, all aboard Atlantis.
"It's just the overwhelming sense of being someplace that's so special and doing something that's so unique, and having trained and worked so hard to do that and to have it working so well," says Ross, a husky 200-pounder. "All those things culminating together, it was just a physical and emotional high that very few people ever get to experience."
Ross explains he's "not much of a verbal person" and so never shared the story with his fellow astronauts.
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But he has shared it with his family -- who have something in common with the Jetsons.
Wife Karen helps prepare the meals her husband and other astronauts eat in orbit and on Earth before and after their flights. Daughter Amy works on futuristic spacesuits and helped design the gloves her father wore on Flight No. 6 in 1998, when he put the first space station pieces together. Son Scott, the businessman of the family, manages an auto service center.
"We don't have pictures of flowers and stuff up on the wall. It's dad in spacesuits," Amy Ross said.
With 146 astronauts on NASA's payroll and 62 of them still waiting to make their first space flight, Ross realizes "some people could accuse me of being ... a hog."
But he says he doesn't want to give up space travel. "I don't want to grow up, I guess."