The interview started the same as thousands of others, at least my end of it.
"Hello, this is Vanessa Renderman from The Times of Northwest Indiana," I started. "May I speak with Col. Jerry Ross, please?"
The voice on the other end replied, "Go Boilermakers!"
I laughed out the little bit of nerves I had going into the phone call. That's right. We're both Purdue grads, a few decades apart, but still alumni of the old gold and black.
"Oh, you heard?" I asked.
It put me at ease.
Here's a local guy who launched into orbit seven times, who took pictures of Indiana from space, who seriously would take a one-way ticket to Mars if offered late in life, yet he was completely down to earth.
We talked about his book, "Spacewalker," which comes out in late January.
It's full of space stories, of course — what he saw, how he felt. He told me he wanted a mix of serious and funny stories in the book.
My favorite funny tale is about the drives to the launch pad. A manager sometimes asked the astronauts for their boarding passes before they could board the space shuttle. The scheming, experienced crew members pulled out official-looking passes while the rookies panicked, because they didn't have one, he recalls in the story.
"It was a great 'gotcha moment,' and it helped to break the tension of the day," he writes.
What I enjoyed the most were the local references. Instead of summarizing his childhood in a page or two, he delves into great detail about growing up in Crown Point.
He mentions working as a bellhop at what is now the Radisson Star Plaza Hotel in Merrillville and working at U.S. Steel. He talks about trips to museums in Chicago and to Cubs games. He credits his solid upbringing, his family and community as much as math and science classes for giving him the foundation to become an astronaut.
I was never much of a space geek. My husband is. We spent six hours at Space Center Houston earlier this year, visiting mission control and touring the rocket park.
But I was engrossed by Jerry Ross' book, because the underlying message is one I support and believe in: follow your dreams.
Here's a man who lay on bales of hay when he was a kid in Crown Point, looking up at the stars and wondering about the what-ifs. He worked hard, trudged through setbacks and was persistent. And he went to space. Seven times.
He wasn't handed everything in life. He wasn't born into wealth. He simply set a goal and did what he needed to do to reach it.
I can't think of anything more American.
Vanessa Renderman covers health care for The Times. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org