NASA Space Suit Engineer Amy Ross Discusses Purdue's Impact on Her Career

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This is a podcast episode titled, NASA Space Suit Engineer Amy Ross Discusses Purdue's Impact on Her Career. The summary for this episode is: <p>On this episode of This Is Purdue, we’re talking to Amy Ross,&nbsp;NASA Space Suit Engineer&nbsp;and Purdue alumna.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p><br></p><p>Listen in as Amy discusses her first big design project at NASA, working with her father (NASA astronaut and fellow Purdue alum Jerry Ross), and where she thinks the future of space exploration is headed.&nbsp;</p><p><br></p><p>Plus, she touches on the importance of&nbsp;introducing students to&nbsp;STEM&nbsp;education early, women trailblazers in engineering and space,&nbsp;and&nbsp;the power of the Purdue community.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p><br></p>

Kate Young: Hi, I'm Kate Young and you are listening to This Is Purdue, the official podcast for Purdue University. As a Purdue alum and Indiana native, I know first hand about the family of students and professors who are in it together, persistently pursuing and relentlessly rethinking. Who are the next game changers, difference makers, ceiling breakers, innovators? Who are these boiler makers? Join me as we feature students, faculty and alumni, taking small steps toward their giant leaps and inspiring others to do the same.

Amy Ross: The reputation that Purdue has to get you confident and able to do the work that is best in the world is unparalleled. I was like, but you are a Purdue. I was so excited to be there when it really is just such a huge opportunity to take advantage of this major benefit that the state of Indiana offers you.

Kate Young: Many people across the world know the strong ties between Purdue University and space. Thanks to one of Purdue's most famous alumni, Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon. Purdue now has 27 astronauts in our cradle and nearly one third of all US space flights have included a Purdue graduate. For Purdue alumni, Amy Ross, NASA and human space flight is an all in the family venture. Her dad, Jerry Ross, graduated from Purdue with a bachelor's and masters in mechanical engineering and served in the Air Force before eventually becoming a NASA astronaut. Jerry later set records by flying on seven shuttle missions and performing nine space walks. And Amy followed in her dad's footsteps, she attended Purdue and has been working for NASA for nearly three decades. She shares a few different paths she was interested in during high school and what ultimately made her want to join the boiler maker community. Oh, and you'll hear Amy discuss her love for animals and a certain little one joined her on her This Is Purdue virtual interview. So, really, we had two guests, NASA space suit engineer, Amy Ross, and her kitten. What made you want to go to Purdue?

Amy Ross: Well, when I was in high school, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. And I knew I wanted to do something that I would enjoy and so, I thought about the things that I enjoy. I love animals, so I thought about being a veterinarian. I read a lot, so I thought about being a librarian. And then, my dad has always been deeply involved in the space program and I loved the enthusiasm he had for it, I loved what the space program does for the country, I thought that that was a very meaningful place to spend my career. And so, those were three options I had. I worked at a vet clinic one summer and not knowing any better, as a 17 year old, I thought, small animal clinic isn't for me. So, I didn't know that I could drive to Houston and be a zoo vet or something. We didn't do that at the time, we didn't drive that far to go to work. So, I kicked that option out but it's probably okay because I am a bleeding heart for animals and I'd probably get myself into all kinds of fixes trying to help all kinds of animals, if I were a veterinarian.

Kate Young: You'd have 20 dogs at this point, you've adopted. crosstalk

Amy Ross: Yeah. Well, right now I've got a bunch of cats.

Kate Young: Oh my gosh- crosstalk

Amy Ross: Yeah. This is Thunder and he's five weeks old.

Kate Young: Oh, yeah. He's tiny.

Amy Ross: Yeah. He's out here because I have his bottle and he might want to... Soon.

Kate Young: Well, that's interesting that you weeded things out, at least, you gave it a try and then, knew that that wasn't for you. Did your dad have any sway in, I really want you to go to Purdue, I want you to take after me or was that your own decision?

Amy Ross: No. They were actually really open to what university I wanted to choose. And so, back in the day we had books of all the different universities and reading through them, Columbia really appealed to me, until I realized where it was. And then, I looked at some Texas schools as well, they're close, maybe a little too close to my parents. One of the universities, Rice, that I was interested in, is 45 minutes door- to- door with my folks and I thought, that could be cause for trouble. And then, I went with my dad to a talk that he was doing and got to spend some time at Purdue, in January, and just still hanging out in the student union, it felt right. Of course, my parents were supportive because they loved Purdue but very much, that was my own decision to make. Now, when I decided I wanted be an engineer and work for the space program, it didn't hurt that Purdue has that excellent engineering program than it does. I thought I was going to be a mission controller, people who sit in mission control and help fly the vehicles, turned out differently. But when I decided that, that meant get an engineering degree, get into the co- operative education program at the time and then get into NASA.

Kate Young: The co- op program Amy just mentioned allows students to alternate semesters between studying at Purdue and working in industries of their choice, which gives students both an academic foundation and real world work experience. And NASA co- ops are unique, students can work within different divisions so they can find the right fit.

Amy Ross: So, I got an undergraduate degree and a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue. I did the co- operative education program throughout that entire time, so I did seven, kind of, plus tours as a student.

Kate Young: And Amy points out that, although the bookwork of engineering may deter some people from going into a STEM related career, it's important to expose young people to experiences, where they can learn hands- on and in- person, such as space and robotics camps, instead of just being behind a computer.

Amy Ross: I do think that folks who are introduced to it earlier, the robotics programs, I'm not a robot gal but I see how those programs get at people involved. The bookwork of engineering is sometimes what turns some people off of going into STEM but the doing of engineering, the building things, the thinking about how to make something, that's fun. And I think a lot more opportunities like that are helpful. I've been exposed to space camp and challenger centers and those kinds of things, so the doing of it is fun. I think also that, trying to get more education about just what you can do with the degrees matters because I've honestly thought, maybe I'd be sitting in front of a computer, at a drafting program or something. I didn't know what different kinds of things engineers could do. And honestly, the technical side of it, while I understand it and I need it, I enjoy the running of a team more and the strategy of where we need to go and what technologies we need to develop, more than sometimes doing the actual number crunching and that kind of work. So, I think folks being aware that those opportunities are there with STEM, because I think some people who have those kinds of biases would prefer business degrees, not knowing any better. And knowing that engineering degrees could let you do those cool making stuff things without necessarily being the number cruncher all day is important to communicate.

Kate Young: Sure. Amy looked up to her dad and his extensive career as a NASA astronaut but I was curious if anything else led her to choose this career path. Was there anyone, when you were growing up, any astronauts or anyone in NASA besides your dad that you really looked up to or saw them on TV and was like, someday I want to be them or be at NASA with them?

Amy Ross: That's an interesting question.

Kate Young: I asked Briony Horgan a question similar and she had this exact moment when she was watching a mission and she just knew that's what she wanted to do. So, I was curious if you had a similar experience like that.

Amy Ross: I think maybe dad's enthusiasm, for one, so dad had a big piece in it. But we did things like launched mobile rockets, we went out and looked at the constellation so we could name them and know which ones were which. And our community here is just elbow- to- elbow, people who work for NASA. And so, in Sunday school class at school, I got to meet people whose parents did different aspects of the NASA jobs. And so, you didn't get a whole lot of mileage out of being an astronaut's kid because the kid next door, their dad is a flight director and there's fewer flight directors than there are astronauts. So, why do you think you're cool? And I'm not cool, my dad's cool.

Kate Young: Yeah.

Amy Ross: I'm just a kid trying to figure out what I want to do. So, just seeing that variety of people who do that work, being at parties. I don't know that I have any single event but just the whole experience of knowing what the NASA community and space community were like, I think, pulled me in as much as anything.

Kate Young: So, Amy graduated from Purdue and joined NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston full- time. Her first big project, developing space suit gloves. Amy worked with her mentor, legendary space suit designer, Joe Kosmo, who retired from NASA with 50 years of experience working on space suits. She tells us what went into creating these next level gloves.

Amy Ross: I worked with a gentleman in the advanced space suit team, that was just Joe Kosmo, my mentor and then me and the team, at the time. He had been working for a decade on developing new gloves. My job was really to take a pair of gloves that we'd gotten to a very high level of performance and then, get it certified to fly on the shuttle, at the time. So, that's what I did, I took those prototype gloves and flew them in space. Which is a big deal too, there's a lot of work that goes inaudible.

Kate Young: And how long did that project take? I mean, I'm sure that wasn't just a quick turn thing, right?

Amy Ross: Yeah, no. It took over a year and a half to get the gloves certified to fly in space. And then, I was the lead for the station... well, the shuttle gloves, for about three years after that.

Kate Young: The first astronaut Amy and Joe's gloves would be tested on, well, it was none other than her dad, Jerry Ross. Amy says her dad used to joke with her at family dinners, where are my gloves? When will they be ready? Once the gloves passed certification, Jerry was able to test them out in a 1999 shuttle mission where he performed three space walks. He even took a minute to share his praise and gratitude for the new gloves on TV, during his space walk, as Amy watched it all unfold. Now I've read articles that you're working on these space suits and obviously, technology has advanced and changed since you first created those gloves. What kinds of things are different this time around, when you're building that whole suit and what remains, kind of, similar to when you were building those gloves?

Amy Ross: It's easier to say what's not changed and that's the human and how complicated the human body is and how amazing the human body is. So, trying to replicate, in a shell, what the human body can do on a person is difficult. We've all seen a lot of Iron Man and as fun as Hollywood makes that look, it's much more challenging when you put, basically, a scuba tank around a human and try to let them do their job easily and well. So, things that have changed, a lot of the tools that we've used have changed. So, I would say, a lot of the modeling that we can do, a lot of the 3D printing we can do, so fast prototyping is how we primarily use that, those things make my job more efficient, so I can get to the same answer quicker with the new tools that we have. When they needed a new suit to be built with tools and technologies and designs that we would want to use and know would be appropriate for the mission they want to do, in some ways, that's a 25 plus year answer.

Kate Young: And what about the team members who are working on new space suit designs?

Amy Ross: Normally, my team for our advanced work is pretty small. So, maybe two, three engineers at NASA, then maybe some contractors and then, three or four technicians. When you're trying to build a flight suit, you need a lot more people, there's a lot more detail work to do, a lot more to 100% complete work to do. And so, we had over 80 people last time I counted it up.

Kate Young: As you can imagine, working within NASA requires a lot of problem- solving. Amy discusses some of the challenges she's faced in her career. Boiler makers always keep going and they're always pursuing their best selves. What was a challenge that you faced within your career that you overcame?

Amy Ross: There's been several. Carbon dioxide levels in the suit testing, we never get that done. And so, there's always different ways to do it, different approaches, the life sciences guys change their mind on what they think is the right way to do it. And so, just always trying to think about better. And so, it gets really frustrating because you do the last time they thought it was good and then, they come back with an analysis that says, it's not good because they've got a new way to analyze it. And that's been a career long effort, I've gone through probably about six different ways of doing carbon dioxide testing. So, persistence counts, you just got to keep at it, be open to new ideas, understand why the change is there. We do get better because of those changes but it does take some persistence to just keep at it and realize, okay, we just did this big test and now we're going to do it all over again. Also, the constellation program, with advanced suit work, it's an up and down kind of a situation. A program will get started, like the constellation program, and then a program will end, like the constellation program. And so, we had a big team going, we were getting a lot of progress made and all of a sudden, change of administrations, program was ended and all that work just, kind of, gets shelled and there's just a few people like me that's still there, that remembers what we did, that can carry that information, that knowledge that we gained, forward. But we were excited to build a suit and fly it and then, we didn't get to.

Kate Young: Will that suit ever be used in the future or it's just something that you have to accept and then move to a different way of thinking and creating it?

Amy Ross: Yeah. So, that particular suit won't be used. Different requirements, different style of mission. Suit design is predicated on where you're going and what you're doing and when they change where you're going and what you're doing, changes what the suit needs to be. And so, the suit that we're working on now, it's the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit or xEMU, has different requirements that mean it's a different looking suit.

Kate Young: Recently, women and particularly women from Purdue have been trailblazers when it comes to space exploration. Purdue professor, Briony Horgan, for example, is one of the tactical science leads for NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover. Be sure to check out Briony's This Is Purdue episode to learn more. And, of course, there's Beth Moses and Sirisha Bandla, both part of Purdue's Cradle of Astronauts. In July, 2021, at just 34 years old, Sirisha was one of four mission specialists on Virgin Galactic's Unity 22 suborbital flight. And Amy mentioned she is friends with Beth, who made history in 2019 with Virgin Galactic, becoming the first female commercial astronaut. Beth then made history again in 2021, joining Sirisha on the first ever fully crewed commercial space flight. I ask Amy about her thoughts on the increase of women's involvement in space exploration. What advice do you have for other female engineers who want to get into the space industry?

Amy Ross: Own that you have that degree, that you have those capabilities. You are an engineer like everybody else, so go and do what you're going to do. Honestly, fortunately, I've had very little issue being a female engineer, I think I've had more issue being an introvert.

Kate Young: As for the future of space exploration, the team at NASA has lofty goals. Amy shares what she's looking forward to in the next few years and her thoughts on private industry becoming more and more involved in space flight. When it comes to the space industry and the future, where do you think space is going to be in the future? And is there anything you're looking forward to, in particular?

Amy Ross: I will say that, the place right now, where private industry is getting much more capable and involved in space flight, is interesting from the NASA side. If I were just a person- person, I think that that's very exciting. Do I want to be able to fly in space? You bet I do. Do I have$250, 000 to fly in space? You bet I don't. So, I got to feed this little guy, so that's where my money goes. So, that's not same enough to get a Virgin Galactic flight. But someday in the future, being able to share that experience with people, more people, I think is a good thing for the United States, for the world, because I don't know a single crew member who has flown who hasn't come back and really been in awe of our planet, the care we need to take of it and how much... It's a little tiny blue and green gem in the black, black, black emptiness of space. And so, we breathe air every day, we drink water every day. We don't think a thing about it but you try to make it happen somewhere where it doesn't want to be, it's hard. And so, those things are precious and those things are things we need to take care of. And so, I think the more people that get that experience and have that appreciation, the better off the planet will be.

Kate Young: And do you have any future project you're working on, that you are able to share or something that you're looking forward to within the next few years?

Amy Ross: I look forward to continuing my advanced space suit work, so I expect to keep working on new technologies that will help suits as we go forward into Mars. Probably, I'll be focused more on more Mars than the moon, at this point.

Kate Young: As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, Purdue University is called the cradle of astronauts for good reason. I asked Amy about the Purdue community within NASA. Are there any engineers at NASA that went to Purdue with you or is there any type of Purdue community within NASA?

Amy Ross: There's a lot of us, yes. A while ago we got a picture in mission control with all the Purdue engineers and some of the crew members and gosh, I think it was the head of the station program, at the time, some pretty big wigs in the Johnson Space Center and NASA community. There are a bunch of us still and so, that's nice too. I've met a lot of good engineers from a lot of different schools, even some of those ones that we don't like to mention, Michigan and Ohio State. But big 10 is still good but the co- workers that I have, the colleagues that I have, that are Purdue graduates, you just know how they're going to be. You know that they're used to working hard, you know that they are going to solve problems, you know that they're prepared and you know that they're good people, that's pretty universal. It's not a good old boys club but it definitely makes you, again, feel like family.

Kate Young: And speaking of family.

Amy Ross: Dr. Beering was the president of Purdue when I was there. And one of the things he always said and tried to engender was that, Purdue is a family. And that's very much part of how I felt while I was there. My nieces have gone to different universities and I can tell you that, the communication, the personal care, that I had at Purdue, I don't think that they've had at their universities. When I was in the school of mechanical engineering, I knew the secretary, I knew the co- operative education coordinator. I knew they were taking care of me, I knew they were helping me, I knew that they were going to make sure I had the classes I need to graduate. I felt very supported, very much like family and I think that's what you're used to, you take it for granted because that's not true for everywhere.

Kate Young: And some of Amy's favorite moments at Purdue include a great balance of academics and athletics.

Amy Ross: I would say, there's a few. Just all those long hours in the subbasement of Potter Library, which isn't there anymore, the engineering library, it used to be. Studying with my study group just really is one of those memories that comes to mind, when I think about Purdue. As the roar of the crowd at Mackey Arena, as we headed toward in the final second, so we needed a point to win, that was fun.

Kate Young: On this podcast, we hear from all different guests on how Purdue prepared them to serve in our country's military or win an Olympic gold medal or create a record breaking paint to combat climate change. For Amy, it's all about that boiler maker, I can and I will attitude. How do you think Purdue prepared you for a career at NASA?

Amy Ross: Yeah. Well, it's the bottom line. We were just talking about this with my co- worker today. It isn't all of that bookwork that you do, it's not all that homework that you do, as important as it is, because that's exercising your mind and teaching you tools, which you need. But it's the fact that you can fight through that, right? It's not easy. But if you get that degree, you've put in that work so that you can solve those problems, you can figure it out. So, you have that, I'm capable and I'm going to do this attitude and that's how you get things done. It's not, that's hard or I'm not sure how to do that or I don't want to work that hard to do that. It's, I can and I will do this. I think one of the things that I was surprised about when I went to Purdue is how little understanding of what Purdue is and gives you and gives the world, people in Indiana didn't have, they didn't understand what an asset Purdue is. Coming from here and seeing the people at work and meeting other engineers that work at Purdue and my dad and his fellow astronauts that graduated from Purdue, the reputation that Purdue has to get you competent and able to do the work that is best in the world is unparalleled. And that people at Purdue were like, well, it's here or IU, so I came here, it's closer to home. I was like, but you are Purdue, I was so excited to be there. And it really is just such a huge opportunity to take advantage of this major benefit that the state of Indiana offers you.

Kate Young: That's so interesting. I graduated from Purdue 11 years ago and when I came back to work here, I mean, I loved Purdue, that was my number one choice and everything but I'm from Indiana. And then, when I came back, I'm like, this school is a top tier school. I mean, the things that we're doing, the stories that we're telling, with the alumni and, I mean, I completely agree.

Amy Ross: We're Midwesterners, we're humble, we're low key. It's been there and it will be there. It's just, kind of, part of the landscape and we don't think to celebrate those as things like we, I think, sometimes should. Because I'm telling you, I've worked with people from a lot of different universities, some that consider themselves better than Purdue and I don't think that they're producing any better engineers than Purdue is and definitely sometimes better co- workers.

Kate Young: Yeah. We all know how to work as a team and be a family, like you said. crosstalk

Amy Ross: Yes. Indiana rises being about think and use your brain and do real stuff. When it gets down to it, we're doing real stuff and you better be able to think. If you are enjoying our This Is Purdue podcast episodes, please be sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcast and share our show with a friend. And if you'd like to read more on all of Purdue's ties to the space industry, head over to purdue. edu/ space. Thanks for listening to This Is Purdue. For more information on this episode, visit our website at purdue. edu/ podcast. There you can head over to your favorite podcast app to subscribe and leave us a review. And as always, boiler up.


On this episode of This Is Purdue, we’re talking to Amy Ross, NASA Space Suit Engineer and Purdue alumna.  

Listen in as Amy discusses her first big design project at NASA, working with her father (NASA astronaut and fellow Purdue alum Jerry Ross), and where she thinks the future of space exploration is headed. 

Plus, she touches on the importance of introducing students to STEM education early, women trailblazers in engineering and space, and the power of the Purdue community.  

Today's Host

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Kate Young

|Digital Content Strategist + Host, This is Purdue Podcast

Today's Guests

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Amy Ross

|NASA Space Suit Engineer