NASA astronaut Terry Virts talks about what he learnt in space

By Jared Richards 23 November 2016
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Terry Virts has spent 200 days in space, been commander of the ISS, and taken more photos of Earth from space than any other person. He shares his photos, as well as things he’s learnt watching the world from afar.

FIRST-HAND, NASA ASTRONAUT Terry Virts has seen views that – even with the pictures he took – are hard to fully appreciate the scope of. Born in 1967 in Baltimore, Maryland, Terry began his career flying across the world with the U.S. Air Force, where he logged over 5300 flight hours during the ‘90s before joining NASA in 2000.

With over 200 days in space, the ex-commander of the ISS has performed three space walks, totalling 19 hours floating outside of the space craft. Terry’s also an avid photographer, and holds the record of taking more photos of Earth from space than any other person.

Lake Nyasa/Malawi in eastern Africa. (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

“[Italian ISS astronaut] Sam [Cristoforetti] used to say, ‘Don’t you have enough photos of sunsets?’” said Terry.  “But I could never get enough.”

On the phone, Terry rattles off some of the most breath-taking sights he saw from space – looking down through the eye of typhoons, admiring the sheer power of lightning storms, seeing the Great Barrier Reef, taking in Russia’s “otherworldly Kamchatka Peninsula” – before stopping suddenly.

Aurora borealis. (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

“Kangaroos!” he exclaims. They’re hopping roadside as Terry drives from Tullamarine Airport to Melbourne. “I’ve never seen kangaroos before. Wow.”

We stop the interview briefly so he can take in the sight, then Terry resumes listing some of his favourite views from space. The difference in scope seemingly doesn’t register to him. It’s fitting, given he’s in Australia to speak at British philosopher Alain de Botton’s The School of Life about how space has shifted his sense of perspective about everyday life on Earth.

But first – what was an average day in space like?

 “One of the beauties was that every day is different,” said Terry. “One day you’re a scientist, then a mechanic, dentist, doctor. And some days, you get to do space walks.”

NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore on a spacewalk with Terry Virts on 21 February 2015. This photo was mistaken for a selfie due to Barry’s hand reaching out – but as you can see in his reflection, Terry is taking the photo. (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

The main aim of Terry’s seven month and six member ISS expedition was to analyse the impact of space upon human eyesight, so various experiments were common. Rigorous exercise routines ensured Terry and the other astronauts kept in top shape even in zero gravity – to go running, straps would buckle them down against treadmills on the wall.

Naturally, zero gravity took time to get used to – learning to float and move around with your arms and pick up things with your feet is an unusual experience, to say the least.

The Milky Way. (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

“Weightlessness is an oppressive, ever present force that impacts everything you do in space,” said Terry. “Unlike learning to walk, which takes years, the second you leave the atmosphere you have to learn how to float.”

Some astronauts (Terry didn’t name names) took weeks to move around confidently. One thing easier to adjust to was the food – Terry said the meals were “better than anything I would have prepared at home as a bachelor.”

Despite spending 200 days on the ISS, something Terry never quite got used to was the views.

Aurora Borealis above Moscow and Russia. (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

He talks about how when launching into the atmosphere he found himself realising he’d never seen these shades of blue before.

“I wish I had the words to describe it, but I just have my photos,” says Terry. “I want to learn how to paint, to capture the colours I saw.”

Some sights were awe inspiring in a less magnificent way – the smog over Beijing (“You can see what happens when you burn too many fossil fuels”), the deforestation of the Amazon (“You’d see big squares and patches where the green is just missing”) and, at night time, the disparity between the places  on Earth lit up, and those that weren’t.

Sydney at night. (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

“At first I thought I was seeing human activity, but then I realised I was seeing wealth,” says Terry.

Terry called the light differences between South and North Korea – where save for capital Pyongyang, the latter remains un-illuminated at night – “the most striking photo of the human condition on earth.”

But at the same time, Terry stressed how much more beauty than bad he saw – how the views created a whole new bucket list of places to visit back home.

Inland Australia (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

“The Australian outback is so red. The Great Barrier Reef is amazing, of course,” said Terry. “[Russia’s] Kamchatka Peninsula is otherworldly. Those volcanoes seem to be from Venus or Mars, not Earth.”

He learnt a lot about perspective, too. Of course, the sheer scope of space – how small Earth is, how smaller our everyday concerns and stresses. But more than that, Terry said he was reminded of the importance of always having some sort of goal or direction, how he couldn’t have arrived in space without persistence.

Terry became an astronaut in July 2000, but didn’t go to space until 2010. After the 2003 Columbia disaster, NASA drew back on its expedition numbers, and with fewer opportunities, the new wave of astronauts largely remained on ground. But where many of his colleagues stopped applying for competitive roles, Terry didn’t. His main advice, then, remained “don’t tell yourself no”.

The Kamchatka aleutians, Russia. (Image credit: NASA/Terry Virts)

And what did Terry miss while he was away?

“The smells of fruit and sounds of a busy café, of rain, of ocean waves,” he said.

Terry and the team used to listen to recordings of everyday sounds – one weekend, for a change, they programmed all the computers to play rainfall.

“It’s a very sterile environment – there’s the electronic whirl of fans and beeping computers,” he said. “Not that I didn’t enjoy it. But it’s very sterile. You miss the mess. Sometimes you want something wrong, that’s what makes us human.”

This article is a composite of an interview and Terry Virts’ speech at Chatswood Concert Hall with The School of Life on Tuesday, 15 November.

Terry Virts appears in the IMAX film A Beautiful Planet, currently playing at the Melbourne IMAX.