THE (SOUTHERN) END OF THE EARTH

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I went to Tierra Del Fuego, Patagonia, the southernmost part of South America, where Chile and Argentina end.  I had read stories of sailors and explorers trying to round Cape Horn, and the tremendously bad weather they encountered there.  It always seemed like a foreboding place.

The Southern Ocean, just off the coast of Tierra Del Fuego, is famous for its bad weather.  From orbit aboard the ISS it was visible in the distance, and I always found it to be covered in strange clouds that were unlike any other on the planet- the low-pressure systems there seemed to swirl differently than other tropical storms in other parts of our planet, and there was something about the color and the shapes of the clouds that made me glad that I was not sailing on the seas below.

I had heard of rogue waves, of massive 60’ swells, some maybe 100’, that had a propensity to swallow ocean going vessels.  The explorers, beginning with Magellan, found a safer passage through this land that they called “Tierra Del Fuego,” or Land of Fire.  They were looking for a faster route to India, or simply trying to discover what, if anything, lay beyond.  I have often wondered how those sailors dealt with the fear of the unknown; at the beginning they were not even sure that the earth was round (spoiler alert- it is, I saw it for myself!) or if they would sail off the edge.

I used to think the name “Tierra Del Fuego,” or “Land of Fire,” was so-named because of the thunderstorms there.  Well, I was wrong.  It turns out the natives have a tendency to build a lot of fires to keep warm.  And they do this because, well, they also have a tendency to go naked.  Yup.  They do.  So they need the fires to keep warm.  (which reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry said “you lose 80% of your heat through your head, so as long as you wear a hat you’re OK…”).  In fact, when I reached out to one of the film makers of “The Revenant,” which was filmed in part in Tierra Del Fuego, he warned me “hey the natives like to go naked.”  Well, thankfully my crew didn’t see that, but it was on our radar….

We also encountered a rather unusual environmental problem there.  Of course, global warming is the biggest concern when it comes to our environment.  But in Tierra Del Fuego I came across one that was frankly surprising.  50 years ago a Canadian gentleman imported 50 beavers, in the hopes of breading them for money.  When his business did not work out, they were released into the wild.  And today there are over 100,000 of them!   To make matters worse, the trees in southern Argentina and Chile are much softer than in Canada, so the beavers’ propensity to fell trees is much easier down there, and they probably work five times faster than they do in Canada.  This all means that the forests in Tierra Del Fuego have been dramatically impacted, becoming material for beaver dams.  Finally, the Argentinian and Chilean governments are beginning to cooperate on a solution.  An environmental problem that I had not expected, but a very real one nonetheless.

I expected the weather to be cold since it was nearly the winter solstice down there, but I was surprised at how temperate the weather was.  Yes it was cool, and even dipped a few degrees below freezing with snow.  But to be honest, at 55 degrees south latitude, I really expected much worse.  The weather was pleasant, tempered by the proximity of the Atlantic and Pacific and Southern Oceans.  Several local taxi drivers told me that life used to be much colder, with more snow.  But to be honest the weather was pretty much outstanding.  As was the wildlife, especially birds.  As was flying over the mountains.  As was visiting local schools, seeing the same excitement and wonder in the eyes of the children that I see in every country I visit.  As were so many of the experiences we had.

I loved Tierra Del Fuego for so many reasons; the beautiful terrain, great food, interesting sights to see, fun people, incredible history.  But one thing stood out above all else during my time there, and that was the sunrises and sunsets.  Both sunrises and sunsets seemed to last a very long time, maybe because of the extreme southern latitude.  In the morning there was an extreme contrast between light and dark, with an intense blue and orange band burning in the early morning sky (thankfully, being winter near the Antarctic Circle, “morning” did not happen until after 0900 local time!).

But sunsets- wow.  Just wow.  Words cannot adequately describe them.  One evening we were driving to Puerto Navarino on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel in order to catch our ferry back to Argentinian Ushuaia.  And as we rounded a corner by the seaside, I saw the most spectacular sunset.  I immediately asked our driver to stop, and he pulled over.  Our diligent cameramen Diego and Fabio got out the RED video cameras, and our still photographer Chris got out his professional still gear.  And were we ever in for a treat.  The sky was ablaze with the most speechless view I’ve seen (on Earth)- pink, orange, fiery yellow circles, purple- they filled the sky from the horizon to overhead.  And they hovered there, for the better part of an hour, putting on the best show that humans could hope for, better than any manmade thing.

Yes, Tierra Del Fuego was spectacular.  I cannot wait to go back.  Hopefully with more time to spend next time.  And with a good camera in my hand (I had the best on this trip, a Canon 1DX, which was almost more fun than thetrip itself).

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

 

You know the expression, “too much of a good thing?”   Well, I’ve always loved travelling.  Since I was a kid, there was nothing better than taking a trip to the airport and flying off to some new destination (or even old destination).  Some folks like to be homebodies, and I get that, sometimes there’s nothing better than just hanging out at home and crashing on the couch.  But for me, going somewhere new has always been the best.  There is something about packing a suitcase and going to the airport that is exciting- the beginning of a new adventure.

But I think I may have crossed a line in the past few weeks.  Wow I’ve been travelling a lot.  I thought when I decided to leave NASA that I was done orbiting the earth, but on a recent trip I actually flew around the planet twice- on the same suitcase!   I have gotten more familiar than I ever thought I would with airports in every corner of the planet.  I know TSA representatives by sight.  I know what time of days different security lines are longest.  I am an expert at rapidly undressing and unpacking in the security line.  All of the little nuances of travelling have lost their mystery.  I’d write a manuscript for a Hollywood movie about this, except I think that was done a few years ago.

Despite the drudgery of Uber and TSA and boarding and luggage and modern airlines, there really are some upsides to travelling.  The best and most obvious is seeing new places and meeting new people, something that never gets old.  One of my favorite things to do when overseas is to try to learn the language.  I’m usually fairly bad when it comes to accents, and I have to hear a word a million times in order to remember it, but one thing I don’t lack is the willingness to try.  I’m sure I’ve offended people and made them laugh all over the world, but I just don’t mind trying to speak other languages.   Self-confidence is not one of my weaknesses (and that can be a dangerous thing!)

I joke- except it’s not really a joke- about speaking a foreign language in the U.K. because the Queen’s English is so different than American English.  I recently had dinner with a very famous Scotsman; I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t know him even though many of my friends were impressed that I got to meet him.  We talked for more than an hour, and I must say that I was extremely impressed with this gentleman, he really was a great man and had lived an impressive life.  But after dinner I confided to my friends- I literally did not understand 50% of what he was saying, because of that thick Scottish accent.  We all got a tremendous laugh out of that, but it taught me a good lesson.  Even if you’re struggling to understand others, you still need to make an effort.  You might learn something, make a good friend, and you’ll be better off in the end, even if a little embarrassed.

The benefits of travel far outweigh the annoyances for sure- new languages, food, seeing sights, learning history, etc.  So when I had a free day on a recent business trip to Zurich, I took advantage of it and some friends took me around to see the sights.  Wow!  It wasn’t my first trip to Switzerland, but it had been a long time since I was there.  I ate some amazing fondue, “Rösti” potatoes, wine, chocolate, etc.  Shopped at several Omega watch boutiques and bought some Swiss Army knives.  Visited Zurich and Lucerne and Engleberg and Titlis and Rigi.  Most of all I enjoyed the view, which just cannot be properly described, so I’ll let my photos speak for themselves.  Most pictures I take are on my iPhone, but a trip like this require a proper camera so I brought my Canon 1DX, and it was worth it.  Nothing beats using a great camera like that when you have spectacular scenery.

 

 

Ending Gun Violence

I just apologized to my daughter.  She went through active shooter training at her school a few days ago: “Run – Hide – Fight.”  I was sorry that she lived in a world where schoolkids have to worry about getting shot, and that I hadn’t done anything to change this in the past.  But the time to act is now, because it has happened again.  Another mass shooting, more kids dead, more thoughts and prayers, more intensive media coverage and flags at half-mast.  I am writing this blog because I can’t stand the fact that this will not be the last time this happens- kids who were home this weekend will be the victims of gun violence at some point in the future.

I write this as someone who believes in the second amendment.  As someone who owns guns and has taught his children firearm safety.  As a fighter pilot I carried a 9mm on my person while flying combat over Iraq.  I have many friends who are responsible gun owners and great citizens. Until a few years ago I was an NRA member, because the local shooting club required membership.  Because of a continuous stream of alarmist emails they sent me warning that the government was “coming to take my guns,” I resigned.  I am not alone in my resignation; in 1995 former president George H.W. Bush famously resigned his membership, claiming that the NRA “deeply offended (his) own sense of decency and honor.”

The reason I have hope that this time will be different than previous mass shootings is because the young people are speaking out.  Maybe the attention they are being given, and their righteous anger, will finally break this endless cycle of violence.  They didn’t create this deadly mess, adults did, but hopefully this time the adults will start to act like adults and do something to protect them.

With that hope, I offer suggestions below of actions that should be taken to prevent gun deaths.  We have the equivalent of eleven 9/11s worth of gun deaths in America, EVERY YEAR.  You only need to reduce that number by less than 10% to prevent a 9/11 magnitude tragedy.  EVERY YEAR.

 

  • A gun buy-back program. The federal government should allocate $1B to buy guns from individuals willing to sell them.  This would amount to 0.025% of the federal budget.  Let’s say that the average cost to the government per gun is $1,000, that would be a million guns out of circulation.  1,000,000.  And that would save lives, by reducing homicides, suicides, and accidents.
  • Improve the system of background checks. Make a streamlined national system that is quick and efficient, and have it applied to all firearm sales.  Critical information including criminal records, mental health treatment, and social media activity need to be a part of this system.  If individuals “fail” a background check after they have purchased a weapon, require them to turn it in.
  • Develop a common-sense policy to restrict weapons and devices that are clearly designed for mass killing and not for hunting or recreational shooting.
  • Require a license to own a gun, that includes a safety training course, certification from a mental health professional, and a thorough background check. You need to have a license to operate a vehicle, fly a plane, go scuba diving or parachuting, and even operate a small drone commercially.  But not to own firearms.
  • Increase the minimum age to purchase handguns or assault style weapons to 21.
  • Impose a federal tax on the sale of firearms. This will reduce the number of weapons on the street and will allow gun safety measures to be funded.
  • Similarly, use technology to identify patterns in behavior, to include purchase history, that could indicate a potential problem. The recent Las Vegas shooter had amassed such an arsenal that any software checking purchase records would have raised a red flag.

 

These ideas are important to me personally, as I have been threatened by an individual with a firearm on several occasions, and authorities did nothing about it.

We can’t prevent all gun violence; there are over 300 million guns in America, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent some.  Regardless of whether or not the government acts, gun manufacturers should take unilateral action by stopping sales of assault weapons and devices that are designed to convert “normal” weapons into assault weapons.  Companies like Sea World and Ringling Brothers have made tough decisions to stop some of America’s most iconic shows, in the name of animal rights.  Surely the gun industry can reduce sales by a small fraction in the name of saving children’s lives.

 

The NRA

The reality is that Congress will not take action until politicians start losing elections because they do not act on gun violence.  Until now, the only elections that have been lost were by those members who have voted for gun control.  The NRA is without a doubt the most powerful lobbying group in the most powerful nation on Earth.  They have had 100% success in dictating gun policy in America for over 3 decades now.  Every time there is a shooting you can see politicians choosing their words very carefully because of fear of the NRA.  But the NRA doesn’t elect government officials, people do.  So, if you think that we should have sensible improvements to gun policy, tell your elected representatives.  And if they don’t respond, elect someone else.

Unfortunately, the NRA has strayed from its original purpose of promoting gun safety and training.  Politicians are literally paralyzed into inaction by the NRA.  I’ve had a chance to talk to many folks at very high levels of government, and when I mention the most moderate or sensible gun control ideas, their response in unequivocal: “the NRA will never allow that to happen.”

Though I am no longer an NRA member, I have a request for those who are- stop paying your dues until the organization makes a commitment to reducing gun violence.  The old argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” just doesn’t cut it.  Are Americans 20 to 40 times more violent by nature than the rest of the developed world?  No, we just have WAY more guns than anyone else.  Were the kids in Florida frantically texting “I hear a mentally ill person” to their parents?  Nope.  They were texting “I hear gunshots.”  And the nightmares the survivors will be having for many years to come will include the sounds of gunshots.  If you are happy with the status quo then do nothing; the landscape of guns in America in 2018 perfectly mirrors the NRA’s vision.  But if you see a need for change, start by demanding change by hitting the NRA in the pocket book.  And then stop re-electing representatives who refuse to act.

My 30+ years in the Air Force were dedicated to protecting Americans from threats overseas, but this is a battle that needs to be fought here at home, in the media, in Washington, and in the courts.  I hope that the brave teenage survivors in South Florida will continue to speak up and will be heard by their representatives in the government.  Because if not, the image above will continue to represent a national tragedy beyond words.

 

Astronaut-photographer Terry Virts shares ‘View from Above’

October 3, 2017

– If, in fact, a picture is worth a thousand words, then astronaut Terry Virts has volumes to say about the view from space.

So much so, that the 300 photographs that fill the pages of his new book represent less than one tenth of one percent of all the photos he took in space. And that was just from one of his two flights to the International Space Station.

In “View from Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World,” published on Tuesday (Oct. 3), Virts collaborates with the photo editors at National Geographic to offer a visually spectacular account of his seven months orbiting Earth.

“My goal in ‘View from Above’ was to share the experience of spaceflight in book format as best as I could,” said Virts in an interview with collectSPACE. “It is most definitely not an ‘astronaut memoir,’ but neither is it simply a photography atlas of the Earth or space.”

“I really wanted to capture what it is like to fly a space mission — from common events like launch and landing and spacewalking, but also what it was like to see Earth for the first time, or experience emergencies while in space, or learn how to float,” said Virts, who retired from NASA’s astronaut corps in 2016.

Virts first launched on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2010, serving as pilot for the mission that delivered and installed the station’s Cupola. Four years later, he used that same multi-windowed room to capture hundreds of thousands of photographs — 319,275, to be exact — of the planet below. (To be even more exact, some of those 300,000 images included observations from other parts of the station and of life aboard the orbiting laboratory, too.)

“There are so many that I loved,” said Virts when asked about his favorite photos, “especially sunsets, sunrises and wide angle ‘Earth shots.’ There was a northern lights sequence that I took over northern Europe that was spectacular, and, well, I could go on.”

“But on my last day in space, I went down to the Cupola, took the scratch pane off, set the camera at f/22 [focal point 22] to get a ‘starburst’ pattern, and took a wide angle shot of the sun and the Earth’s limb. I looked at the preview on the camera screen, realized that was the best picture I’d ever taken.”

That same image, taken just before Virts left the space station for Earth on June 11, 2015, appears as the last photograph in the book.

“I thought to myself, OK, that’s it, I’m never going to top that. What an awesome ending to my time on the station. My most important work in space, in my opinion, was photography and the impressions of space that I can share with others. This truly was saving ‘the best for last,'” Virts writes in “View from Above.”

The 304-page book is organized by the different stages of a space mission, with chapters devoted to “Leaving Earth,” “Our Place in the Universe,” “Deliveries from Home” and “Return to Earth.” Amid Virts’ narrative and his captions, are also a selection of tweets that Virts posted to Twitter while on the space station.

And then there are the “Viewfinders.”

“‘Viewfinder’ alludes to the eyepiece of a camera that you look through,” explained Virts. “At the end of each chapter we included some photos that are presented full page. It’s just a —pretty cool, in my opinion — way to show the reader some of the best images at full size, and not cropped down in the middle of the chapter.”

“View from Above” is not the first book to focus on astronaut photography. NASA, itself, published two volumes of Earth images taken on board its Gemini two-man missions 50 years ago. In the decades since, coffee-table-style books compiled by the Association of Space Explorers (“The Home Planet, 1988”) and by individual astronauts (including Jay Apt’s “Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph The Earth,” published in 1996 by National Geographic) have offered a look back at the planetwhere we live.

“I have always loved space photography books, since I was a child,” said Virts.”[Astronaut] Don Pettit was actually a great mentor to me as he helped me learn about photography during my years as an astronaut and has quite a beautiful book himself.”

“I wanted to do something different than these, though,” Virts said.

Virts acknowledges that the photos will be the major draw for “View from Above,” but he hopes readers take the time to read his narrative, too.

“Honestly, I’m most proud of the writing,” he told collectSPACE. “It would be great to simply look at the photos in the book, but I think that it would be much better to combine that with the stories that I tell, to get the full experience of what it Is like to fly in space.”

Virts’ story is endorsed by another astronaut who ventured beyond Earth and who penned the foreword for “View from Above.”

“He points out that he never made it to the moon, but he spent over 213 days in space whereas I only spent 12,” writes Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon on Apollo 11 in 1969. “I look at Terry as a steward for the future on my behalf for the next generation of astronauts and space explorers.”

“I feel he still has much to contribute to the world with his experiences, and I hope he will carry on the spirit of Apollo and the shuttle era into the Mars era.”

View from Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World” by Terry Virts is available now from National Geographic.

Tell your kids you love them

This is a blog I wasn’t expecting to write.  It is certainly one that I never wanted to write. But it is one that I feel I must. And I apologize upfront if it’s a little on the “heavy” side.

I recently witnessed a fatal car accident. It, in fact, happened directly in front of me, and I was at the scene within seconds. When it happened, the events of the ensuing minutes and seconds passed in rapid succession, like I was in some kind of training session. But the reality of what had happened quickly set in. Unfortunately a young man had lost his life much too early. And the fragility of life and the realization of just how quickly and unexpectedly it can end was made loud and clear to me. Something that we all know intellectually, hit me over the head in the most visceral way.

As a man with a type-A personality, I like to fix things. If someone brings a problem to me I immediately start to think of solutions. This isn’t always helpful in a relationship, I know, sometimes it’s better to just listen and be sympathetic and not offer advice and fixes. But in an emergency like this, there was absolutely nothing I could do to solve it; this person’s fate was sealed and I was helpless. Which was pretty dang hard for a guy like me to accept. I know that tragedies like this unfold probably tens or maybe hundreds of times a day in America, but that didn’t make it any easier.

There are billboard signs along the highways in my home state of Texas that have public service announcements; “Amber Alerts” for missing persons, highway closures, and sometimes they display how many highway deaths we’ve had in our state, year-to-date. Unfortunately, by the time Christmas rolls around each year, the number has inevitably surpassed 3,000. We lose as many people in Texas on the roads, every single year, as America did on 9/11. Can you imagine if we spent the same resources on preventing highway deaths as we spent after September 11th, 2001? Or even a fraction?How many accidental deaths could be prevented?  I don’t know the precise number, but I know that it would be worth it. Hundreds if not thousands of lives would be saved each and every year in the USA alone, if people drove more responsibly. Less distracted. Had safer vehicles. Safer roads. In so many ways, senseless deaths could be prevented. Unfortunately, thousands and maybe millions of people around the world have had experiences similar to what I recently experienced. Let’s take action to make this number shrink. Let’s prevent parents from getting that unthinkable, unbearable, life-changing knock on the door from the local state policeman. Let’s prevent kids from losing parents and siblings suddenly and unnecessarily. Let’s spend our time and money and resources in a rational way, to affect the maximum positive change, and improve highway safety.

Well, that is the practical, “take action and solve the problem” side of me. But here is the personal and emotional side:

I know that we can’t rewrite history. Our past cannot be changed, there is nothing that can be done about it. All we can do is focus on writing the future. Make our future decisions better. And live without regret.

So, at the risk of sounding pretentious, may I please present this simple challenge to everyone (myself included)? Tell your loved ones that you love them. Don’t let anything go unsaid. Because, to be honest, the warranty has expired, for all of us. Unless you live every day being open and honest with those closest to you, the very real possibility of something tragic happening without letting them know how you feel exists. That doesn’t mean that we should live in fear- on the contrary, the vast majority of us won’t ever have to deal with a tragedy like this. But, you never know. So- don’t live with regret.

Tonight, I will tell my kids I love them.  And try to live life with no regrets. Because one day my time on earth will be over, as it will be for all of us. And I don’t want there to be things left unsaid when that day comes.