All About Space
“IT’S THE BIGGEST PROBLEM THAT WE’RE NOT WRITING ABOUT”
All About Space speaks with the former NASA astronaut about his time in space and his newfound ‘cosmic perspective’
BIO Colonel Terry Virts
Former NASA astronaut Virts has spent over seven months in space on the ISS, where he captured the reality of his experience through photography. Virts has famously taken more photos from space than any other human, having taken over 300,000 spectacular images. He is also the author of the National Geographic photography book
View From Above, as well as his latest book, How to Astronaut.
At what moment did you decide you wanted to become an astronaut?
When I was a little kid. The first book I read in kindergarten was about Apollo. Growing up I had pictures of the very first red white and blue 1974 F16, Space Shuttle Columbia and the Andromeda Galaxy. Those are the kinds of things I had all over my wall when I was a boy. When I was a kid I remember going to the Air and Space Museum and watching an IMAX movie called To Fly! and going: ‘That is amazing. I want to be a pilot and an astronaut.’ That IMAX movie really impacted me.
What was your least favourite part of your astronaut training?
Learning the Russian language was probably the hardest thing, but I loved it. I hated it and then I got over the hill and I loved it. The NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory] can be really fun and satisfying, and it can also be torture. I used to joke that it’s the torture chamber, this giant building right in Ellington Field in Houston. The pool can not be fun because the suits are so bulky. In the early days it was really awful, then towards the end when I got good at it and I knew what I was doing it got a lot better. I remember after my first run I went and talked to Rex Walheim, the senior astronaut, and I was like, ‘Rex, this is supposed to be fun?’ He laughed and said, “Yes it sucks. It’s terrible, but eventually it gets better.”
Was there anything that your rigorous training didn’t prepare you for in space?
It doesn’t prepare you for the view – it’s so spectacular. Words can’t describe what it’s like to see that with your own eyes. I’ve tried. I’ve written two books and I’ve got a kid’s book coming out next year. I also directed a film called One More Orbit last year and helped make the IMAX movie
A Beautiful Planet, so I’m trying to describe it and show it, but until you see it, the visual impact of looking out at Earth, it’s really amazing.
Have you ever been left feeling that way with a particular view on Earth?
Earth is amazing; it’s never-ending and there’s so much to see down there. A place that’s amazing is Antarctica. I had a chance to go there a few years ago, and the mountains are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The Queen Maud Land mountains are just otherworldly. It’s like you’re on some planet in a different solar system.
Tierra del Fuego in southern South America is also an amazing place. The sunset I saw there was unbelievable. The blues and the pinks, I had never seen colours like that. I thought this can’t be real. Tierra del Fuego was pretty spectacular.
There are a lot of spectacular places, but those two views just come to mind right away. Though there’s still a lot of places I need to visit. I want to do a TV show where I go and visit the places that I saw from space.
Were you a keen photographer before you went into space? Yes, I was. When I was a kid my parents got me a little Konica SLR camera and I learnt photography
on my own. In college I always had a camera around my neck. I think a lot of astronauts are like that. Some astronauts are camera people, and some are not. Everybody learns how to take pictures and everybody takes pictures in space, but some take lots like me and Don Pettit.
I take pictures on Earth too. Just yesterday I was out for a walk and took some photos of some ducks. I just take pictures all the time!
Have you had any close shaves in space?
Yes, by far the biggest deal was halfway through our mission. On my last flight, we had an ammonia alarm go off. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it was a really big deal for a day as we thought there was an ammonia leak in the station.
If there’s a real ammonia leak it actually ends up killing the space station as it’s uninhabitable, so we spent the day on a Russian segment with the hatch closed because they don’t have ammonia. We were just staring at each other thinking, ‘I guess the ISS is done… we’ll hang out here for a few weeks’. By the end of the day they called the station and said, “It was a false alarm, but when you go back to the American segment wear your gas masks just in case, and take some samples just to be sure.” That was probably the biggest close shave. We went through a phase for about a month where every day the alarms were going off with some caution or warning. It was a month of constant errors, and that got kind of old to be honest.
In the last year we’ve all been cooped up. Have you got any tips for dealing with isolation from your time on the ISS?
A year ago I wrote 10 lessons I learned about being stuck in space. When I was in space we had three cargo ships blow up back to back to back: an Orbital Cygnus, Russian Progress and SpaceX Dragon. We didn’t know when we were coming back because they cancelled our return flight on the Soyuz until they could send our replacement crew. But they didn’t want to launch our replacement crew until they figured out why the Progress blew up, because it’s the same Soyuz rocket booster.
We were stuck, and we didn’t know for how long. All of a sudden all of our work was done, so we had to add new tasks. We relocated the PMM [Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module], which was really fun. That was a really cool task to rearrange the space station. It was a big job too. We weren’t supposed to do that, but we did.
The ten lessons I learned were: give yourself a schedule – don’t just get lazy and watch Netflix every night, which is what I’m doing now. Keep on exercising, as exercise is very important. Don’t watch the news 24/7. Every day we would get together and share what we had heard on the news, but it wasn’t all day long. There’s so much
bad news right now, and so you have to moderate the news intake. Do something creative. For me, I was like, ‘You know what, I’ve got the rest of my life on Earth. I’m going to take advantage of this.’ I took a lot of pictures and I shot a lot of scenes for A Beautiful Planet.
Don’t worry about things you can’t control. I can’t control COVID, so it doesn’t do any good worrying about it. Just focus on what you can do. The most important thing is keep your attitude up. We had a good attitude, and we had a bet going as to when we were going to go back to Earth and when the next guys would launch. We all said ‘we’re here, we have the rest of our lives on Earth, so let’s make the most of it’. Those are a few of my top-ten ways to handle isolation.
What was your favourite chapter to write in your book How to Astronaut?
The survival chapter was really fun because it brought back a lot of memories. The original chapter was two or three times as long. I started remembering all of these details from when I was 17 years old at the Air Force Academy and when I was 20 years old at the French Air Force Academy. I remembered all of these things from a long time ago that I had forgotten about. It’s really fun to write that down.
There’s also a chapter about the effects of carbon dioxide and the competition we had with a paper bag. We were just sitting around breathing into this paper bag, and you’re sweating, you turn purple and your heart starts racing really fast. These are carbon dioxide symptoms and you need to know them. It actually happened to me in space two times: once on the shuttle and once on the station. I got in a carbon dioxide bubble and I had all those symptoms. But it was just funny how it turned into this competition with a paper bag.
How did you find writing your new book How to Astronaut differed from your picture book
View From Above?
I wrote View From Above right after I left NASA. I retired, had my last day and then I was home. I would set the alarm every day, and by 08:00 I was typing away on my laptop. I would write a chapter, then my brain was full. I would go to the pool and have a beer, then set my alarm. Then the next day at 08:00, I was writing again. I wrote a chapter a day and took Sunday off, and I had the whole book written within two weeks.
A few years later I wrote How to Astronaut. I was travelling a lot because I was doing a lot of speeches and events for my day job. I couldn’t just set my alarm and start writing because I was always on the road. A lot of that book was written on aeroplanes. I found them to be a great place to write because you’re just stuck for a couple of hours, so I would just get my laptop out and start writing. Half of How to Astronaut or more was actually written on aeroplanes.
I was so happy about that book because I had two goals with it. I wanted people to laugh and say wow! Whenever I’ve taken part in an interview about the book, everybody has had that reaction, so I’m really happy about that.
Would you say you’ve gained a new perspective of Earth after being in space?
I think so, yes. People ask, ‘How did you change?’ I’ve thought about this, and I think the way it changed me is I’m less of a black-and-white person. The older you get, the more wisdom you have. You think that there’s probably two sides to everything, and you really should look at the data before you come to a conclusion.
A short film that we made last year was called
Cosmic Perspective. It was about how space photography has changed humanity. We used to be stuck on Earth. Everything was two dimensional, everything was north, south, east and west, right? Then once we started flying, all of a sudden there was this third dimension.
Now that we have Hubble and these telescopes that are really looking in four dimensions, they’re not only seeing things that are far away, they’re seeing things that are really old, you know, billions of years old.
Space photography has changed everything. People like you and me just grew up with it, like that was normal. One of the pictures I had when I was younger was from Viking, which was the first American lander on Mars. 100 years ago we barely had aeroplanes, so it’s amazing how quickly our perspectives have changed.
Do you think space has commercialised now it seems that everyone is having a go?
The problem is that everyone’s having a go, and there are too many satellites being launched into orbit. Many of them are never going to come back down, so they’re there permanently as debris.
It may be fine for the next few years, but a century from now and ten centuries from now they’re still going to be in orbit. Talk about leaving climate change, we’re leaving the space environmental problem for generations to come, and I don’t think that’s cool. I think that’s something that needs to be addressed, and no one’s talking about it.
It’s a problem for astronomers, it’s a problem for humanity. It’s the biggest problem that we’re not writing about.
The most important thing is keep your attitude up