When the Shuttle Atlantis and her crew lift off for the International Space Station, one of the seven astronauts on-board will become a record-breaker.
A round-trip to the international space station is nothing new for a space shuttle mission but this flight is different. Atlantis is carrying the first man to fly in space seven times.
"I really feel very blessed to have the opportunity to serve my country in such an incredible way," says retired Air Force Colonel Jerry Ross, 54. It's his seventh space flight in less than seventeen years.
"I came here as an Air Force officer to work and was fortunate enough to be selected into the astronaut office," he said. "I've had incredible opportunities to work with talented people both inside the astronaut office and outside. And I've had the good fortune to be selected for quite a few missions and every mission has been unique, very challenging and very satisfying."
Mr. Ross breaks a record shared by three other U.S. astronauts - Story Musgrave and Franklin Chang-Diaz, who have also made six shuttle flights and a man who began his career in space almost four decades ago, during the race to the moon.
"John Young is my hero and nobody will ever surpass what John Young's been able to achieve in his lifetime as an astronaut," he said. "I don't care how many times anybody has ever flown in space, they won't be able to outdo what he's done because of when he did them and how he did them."
And how he did them is quite a story.
John Young flew into space twice during Project Gemini in the mid-60s and went on to fly two Apollo missions. He was the command module pilot on Apollo X and became the ninth man to walk on the moon when he commanded Apollo XVI 30 years ago.
In April of 1981, John Young's experience put him in the commander's seat for the very first space shuttle mission. There was a second shuttle flight two years later. That makes six space flights in all. At age 72, Mr. Young is still on the active flight list, but says he won't fly again - not even if it means losing his place as a record-holder.
"I think records were made to be broken and I'm really proud of Jerry and I think he's going on a great mission," he said.
During the 1960s and 70s, most astronauts were pilots, because those skills were most in demand for space flight. Mr. Young says that all changed on the shuttle. The commander and pilot still fly the ship, but the mission specialists perform most other duties.
"They're in charge of the mission and getting the work done," he said. "Pilots are good for doing things like ascent and entry and rendezvous and docking and all the things that require those three dimensional skills. But mission specialists also do that and work on the remote manipulator system, extra-vehicular activities."
In other words, they do the more specialized tasks like running the shuttle's robotic arm or performing difficult space walks. But Mr. Young says it took more than just skill for Jerry Ross to make it into space seven times.
"He's a hard worker, he's been in this business for a long time, he's done all his extra-vehicular activities and he's a great fella," he said.
In addition to all those flights, Jerry Ross has made seven spacewalks and will perform two difficult EVAs outside the International Space Station during the current mission. Shuttle commander Mike Bloomfield says he wanted Mr. Ross on his crew because of his experience and energy.
"The flights are getting more and more difficult and I'll be frank with you I don't know if ours is the most difficult yet but it's right up there as far as everything that we have to do and all the firsts that we have to do," he said. "And if you're gonna do that, you want your first class team on it and that's why Jerry's assigned to this flight. He has the ability to look at all that stuff and make it happen."
Commander Bloomfield says three first-time fliers on Atlantis will benefit the most from having Jerry Ross aboard.
"I want him to take all the rookies on this flight and put them under his arm and try and infuse those six flights of experience that he has in each one of their brains," he said.
As for Mr. Ross, he tends to downplay the record and his space achievements.
"I think The Lord above has been taking care of me all through this," he said. "It's hard to understand how I've been able to be so fortunate as to do this but I can tell you that I certainly have appreciated every minute of it."
He says he won't get too comfortable being the all time leader in space flights. Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz will join him as a seven-time flier during a shuttle mission later this year. But Jerry Ross is proud of his role in helping pave the way for others to become frequent fliers.
"I'm hoping that my granddaughters will have a chance to go fly in space many times and I'm hoping they'll take me with them," he said.