The ex-Commander of the International Space Station chats about all things space, environment and perspective
Our lives are so intertwined with the digital world that it can often be quite difficult to step back and get some perspective. Terry Virts knows all about that.
Former Commander of the International Space Station, Virts has spent more than 200 days in space, and he’s gained a helluva lot of perspective about daily life on Earth, environmental degradation, and the Earth’s beauty. He’s also had a lot of time to think about humans colonising the universe, which we’re sure Elon Musk would love to know about.
One of four astronauts to pilot the NASA space shuttle, Virts has flown on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and has been on three spacewalks. He has also taken more photographs of Earth from space than any other astronaut.
Terry Virts starred in the IMAX/ NASA collab film, A Beautiful Planet, which is currently showing in Australia. He’ll visit Sydney and Melbourne in November to participate in the School of Life talk titled ‘Terry Virts On Perspective and Our Beautiful Planet’. He will also speak at Wired for Wonder .
He took some time to chat to Techly about daily life at the International Space Station, and which photo (of the thousands he has taken) he is proudest of.
Of all NASA astronauts, you’ve spent the third most days continuously in space. Most of us will never be able to experience that first-hand. It’d be great if you could give us a tiny glimpse of what space is like.
Sure, it was an amazing experience. I flew two different times in space. One time was in a space shuttle, which was a two-week-long flight, called an assembly flight, which was the last and final assembly mission of the International Space Station. We brought up two modules called Cupola and Tranquility. Tranquility became the ‘living module’; that’s where the bathroom, the exercise equipment, air and water-recycling equipment are.
The other module we brought up was Cupola, which is a 7-window module that’s the most amazing place, I think, on Earth or off Earth because it’s from there that most of my pictures were taken. It’s everybody’s favourite place on the Station.
My next flight was on a Russian Soyuz. That’s how we got to the Space Station. And that was the one where I did the 200-day mission.
That was a different experience, where we didn’t really know what we were gonna do if we launched. We had been trained with a lot of different skills but you never know if something’s gonna break or if you’re gonna have to do a space walk, or if you’re gonna have to repair from the inside.
NASA went through an 8-month period where 3 different vehicles blew up, cargo ships. [These occurred in 2014-15]. The first one was orbital Cygnus, which had a lot of my stuff on board. And then, while we were in space, the Russian Progress blew up, and that is the same Soyuz rocket that people launch on, so they delayed our replacement crew, which meant that we ended up staying in space longer because they didn’t want this long gap without three people there.
And then, right at the end of the mission, when we got back to Earth, a SpaceX rocket blew up and that was supposed to bring back a lot of my stuff.
So that was a serious time to have lost three vehicles back to back to back. Luckily the ones since have been working and they’ve had enough spare parts and margin, but there was a time when it was kinda iffy.
But what is it like in space? That’s hours and hours worth, you know, I’m actually writing a book on that now.
Having experienced such an infinite understanding of time and space, how do you then sit back at home and adjust to ‘Earthly’ time?
Right, that’s a great question. On my first space flight, I landed [on Earth] on my fifteenth day. I landed, I was wobbly and dizzy but doing pretty good. We went through a bunch of medical checks, were reunited with our families, and went back to HQ to go to sleep.
It was weird. I was in this room that I’d been in just two weeks before, and I turned on the TV and the news was on and I watched it for about thirty seconds and I thought ‘I have to turn it off’. I just couldn’t watch it because it was so silly, was so meaningless. A couple hours before, I’d been in orbit looking down on the Earth so the perspective that I gained was super helpful. If some friends of mine are struggling, I always tell them ‘out in space right now there’s the most amazing sunrise you could ever imagine, there are sights you’ve never dreamed of,’
It keeps the mundanity of the Earth in perspective.
A key aspect of you ‘School of Life’ talks is ‘perspective’. What lessons have you learnt from your time in space about humanity, Earth, and yourself?
You can’t see human activity [from space]. You can see cities, you can look down and see London, or Paris, but they don’t really stand out, and you have to know what you’re looking for. But at night-time you can really see a lot, and what you see if not necessarily population. What you see is wealth.
There are parts of the Earth that are very bright and don’t have a big population, and then there’s a billion people in Africa and it’s completely dark from Cairo down to Johannesburg. So that was an interesting visual way to see how billions of people are living.
I remember talking to some of my Russian cosmonaut friends and saying “there’s six of us in space and there are over 6 billion people down there. We’re one in a billion, that’s how fortunate we are,”
You’re known for your space photography. What was the first photo you took from space, and which photo are you most proud of?
The one I’m most proud of, that’s an interesting question. The first picture I took in space was of a friend’s baby. Right before I launched, they gave me a picture of this baby so I took a picture of this baby in front of the window with the Earth in the background.
The one that I was most proud of was actually my last picture.
I had been there for 200 days, and I took the most pictures ever, of anybody. I took over 300,000 still images. I just went down by myself into the Cupola module and I wanted to get one more sunset picture. So I set up the camera for a starburst and I took the scratch paint off, which causes a lot of blurring, so I had the perfect shot. I took this picture, and I looked at the back of the camera, and it was just so amazing and I said ‘Alright, I’m done’ and I didn’t take any more pictures.
As soon as I took that picture, I got in my space suit and came back down to Earth. It was pretty cool.
You speak so fondly of your time in space. Is there anything that you’d want to experience again?
You know, weightlessness is just…it’s fun. You can experience it on Earth for a second…until you hit the ground. It’s alien, it doesn’t exist on Earth. It is something that I miss. It takes some time to get used it. It’s like learning how to walk, except you have to learn instantly. You don’t have time to learn, you just have to do it quickly.
It takes a bit of time to get used to it. I remember my first few days on my first flight. I had a really bad headache and I had a hard time moving my head. And then, on the third morning, my body figured it out. And I had a smile on my face for the rest of that mission. Yeah, floating is fun.
You’ve been the Commander of the International Space Station, and worked with NASA for years. How did you carve out your career as an astronaut?
When I was a kid, the first book I ever read was about Apollo. I just grew up loving space. My parents got me a telescope and a computer and I taught myself how to program. I never really thought it was possible because it’s crazy to be an astronaut. I went to the Air Force Academy and became a pilot, and then a test pilot. So I was kinda checking the boxes and keeping my options open. And then I got really lucky and got picked.
One thing I would say, even if not to become an astronaut, is ‘Don’t tell yourself no’. Don’t eliminate yourself from what your dream is, what your talents are.
I haven’t yet seen ‘A Beautiful Planet’, but I’d love to see it when it does come out. What do you think is most beautiful about our planet. Given the environmental changes, what should be done to preserve that beauty?
As far as the environment goes, the Earth is just awesome. There are so many things about it that are beautiful. The way I learned the earth was by colour. Actually, Australia is the most amazing, colourful place. We could be in that Cupola module, exercising or whatever, and everything would just turn red and I’d know that we were over Australia. I didn’t even have to look out the window.
96% of the time, the view of the Earth was beautiful, but there were some environmental problems that you could see from orbit. Deforestation was one that I noticed.The island of Madagascar was half green and half brown because the forest was gone. You could see that the Betsiboka River was just red, and that was just clay running off from the mountains.
If you can see a giant environmental mess from space, you know that just can’t be good.
Most days, the Amazon is covered by clouds, so you can almost never see it, but when I did you could see big areas where the environment had been farmed.
From my perspective, the one human impact, other than deforestation was actually visible in China. East Asia, and especially China, is just brown. Whenever you look at it, it’s just foggy and brown. We could never get a picture of Beijing.
What would you say those who still deny the existence of climate change?
What I would say is, whether you agree with climate change or not, it just can’t be a good idea to be putting 2 trillion tonnes of pollution into the air every year.
Hopefully we can get to a situation where we have better ways of producing energy without having to use up what is a finite resource. In fact the director of our IMAX film, Toni Myers, her dream is to push for nuclear fusion, which is a very clean energy. If we could learn how to do that, life would change for all of humankind, and for the planet. But it’s a hard problem to solve.
I think that Mars is our 21st-century destination. It’s just the next natural step, in the long term. Mars has a 24.5 hour day, some resources, water. There’s a lot of reasons for us to live there.
It’s a hard problem, to get that far with a lot of mass, with food, water, air, people, and to then bring them back. But I think it’s doable. Anyway, I’m a fan. I don’t know if Elon’s plan is gonna work or not, but I certainly applaud him for trying. There’s not a lot of people who are willing to spell out a specific architecture and plan, and that’s what he did. I really applaud him for that.
Everyone will say we’re going to Mars, but no-one has a plan.
It’ll be interesting to see what the next few steps are.
Do you believe that Earth is the only planet supporting intelligent life? That’s something that people are constantly interested in.
Right. We did a lot of experiments in space involving biology. I did a lot on my own body, my brain, heart, eyes. A lot of scans, laser scans, ultrasounds. Life is so amazing that I don’t think it would ever randomly form.
Here’s the analogy I use. My garage never gets cleaner by itself. It requires some intelligent person to clean stuff up and make it happen. Making a life form that replicates itself, and thinks and has feelings, that can jump and all the things that life can do, and work for 40, 50, 80 years. That’s amazing. That’s my view on it.
It may be out there, it’s a gigantic universe, trust me. There might be something out there, but I don’t know.