Jim Voss has been to space five times. He can handle the Houston-to-Boulder commute.
Jim Voss is no stranger to work travel.
In one two-year stretch, he flew monthly between Houston and a job site in Star City, Russia, near Moscow.
That wasn’t even extreme: As a NASA astronaut, Voss (MAero’74; HonPhD’00) circled Earth more than 550 times during five Space Shuttle missions.
He spent 201 days in space, 163 as a resident of the International Space Station. In 2001, he and a crewmate floated outside it for 8 hours, 56 minutes, setting the record for longest spacewalk.
Now 69 and three times retired and unretired, Voss continues traveling long-distance for work. Since 2009, he’s been teaching in CU Boulder’s aerospace engineering program, commuting twice a month from Houston, where his wife, Suzan, still works for NASA.
Usually Voss flies Southwest Airlines to Denver. But every few months he pilots himself in one of two small aircraft he owns, a single-engine, four-seat Cirrus SR22 with tan leather interior. He’s also got a two-seat Rutan Long-EZ experimental aircraft he built himself.
“There are never traffic jams,” he said in a June interview at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, where he keeps both aircraft in a meticulously organized hangar adorned with the flags of CU Boulder and Auburn University, his undergraduate alma mater.
Voss enjoys flying for most of the usual reasons: The views, the solitude, the sense of freedom. He also likes the technical challenge and convenience.
On “Voss Airlines,” he said, “there’s no rush, no schedule.”
Commuting by plane also gives him a chance to practice something he does for fun anyway. He’s flown over the Grand Canyon, up and down the Hudson River, past Mount Rushmore and to the Bahamas. He once took the Long-EZ all the way to Alaska.
One year, en route to Oshkosh, Wisc., for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in, he took a detour to Dayton, Ohio, to check out the Air Force museum there.
Astronaut, Pilot, Professor
Name: Jim Voss (MAero’74; HonPhD’00)
Trips to space: 5, last in 2001
Shares record for longest spacewalk: 8 hours, 56 minutes (2001)
Started teaching at CU: 2009
Lives: Houston and Boulder
Travels between them: Twice a month
Trip takes: 5.5 hours in his Cirrus SR22
Voss’ other airplane: Rutan Long-EZ experimental aircraft
Years he spent hand-building it: 13
Likes: Tiny airports
And when his wife joins him in Colorado, he’ll pilot her and friends to a favorite vacation spot in Durango.
In Boulder, Voss and airport pals fly in formation to Fort Collins, Steamboat Springs and Greeley for lunch at little airport restaurants.
From time to time, Voss, who averages about a flight a week year-round, takes his aerospace graduate students for a spin.
Voss learned to fly more than 40 years ago, as a hobby. He later attended Naval Flight School, becoming a flight test engineer, a person who helps establish an aircraft’s capabilities.
Though it was never his job to pilot the Space Shuttle, Voss logged enough Shuttle time to appreciate why the commanders usually came from the ranks of the military’s elite test pilots. Upon reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, the Shuttles, which went out of service in 2011, moved blazingly fast and on an unusually steep path to the runway.
“You can’t afford to make a mistake,” he said.
In 1981, before becoming an astronaut, Voss began building the Long-EZ, following a design by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Given work obligations that often kept him away from home, it took him 13 years to finish the fiberglass-and-foam plane.
But it never felt like work, he said.
“This is fun for me,” he said during a break from his annual piece-by-piece inspection of the Long-EZ.
On the day the Coloradan visited, he was planning to reinstall the nose gear.
“I take good care of my airplanes,” he said. “My life depends on it.”
Voss began commuting by aircraft in 2003, while teaching at Auburn, near his hometown of Opelika, Ala. Flying in the Long-EZ was less of a hassle than taking a commercial flight to Atlanta or Birmingham, then driving two hours to Auburn. He was going almost weekly.
He bought the Cirrus in 2004. Faster and safer, it’s got a full-aircraft parachute for dire circumstances. Fortunately, he's never had to use it.
While teaching at CU, Voss has mostly been commuting on commercial airlines. It’s less expensive than using his own plane, and more reliable — commercial airliners can handle weather Voss wouldn’t risk.
Being a passenger is also less taxing: As pilot, he said, “You have to pay attention all the time.”
When Voss flies himself from Texas to Colorado, he steers a diagonal course northwest from Houston, across Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle, into Colorado, then north. He’ll stop at Dalhart, Tex., or Amarillo for lunch and gas. In the Cirrus, the trip takes five-and-a-half hours.
As much as Voss enjoys flying, he’s looking forward to the 2019 opening of the new aerospace engineering center on East Campus. It’s less than a mile from his Boulder condominium.
“I’m gonna walk,” he said.
Contact Eric Gershon at email@example.com.
Photos by Glenn Asakawa