“When I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried.”
— Alan Shepard, Apollo 14 mission, February 1971
Rocketing into orbit isn’t just some lofty goal for Terry Virts, 50, born in Maryland. It was a concrete desire to go where so few have gone before and so he did it with the driving force of making his dreams become reality. His professional career so far, practically surreal, from his first launch to working with the Russians on a space mission to mastering long distance photography. But he has come back to earth to share his journey as a public speaker, author of View From Above and film maker in helping create A Beautiful Planet. In November, he became an internet viral sensation when he clarified his position with the flat earther community on Good Morning Britain in November 2017, responding to the host who questioned his authority on the subject:
“Well, so they put me on a space shuttle. They hit the red button and they launched me into space going eastbound at 17,000 miles per hour. Thankfully, I came back around to the other side. If the Earth was flat, I would have just kept going.”
Virts gets personal about life aspirations and time in the sky with the VCReporter before his Ventura County debut at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday, Feb. 2 at 8 p.m.
Becoming an astronaut was the ultimate goal for some kids and you did it! What were your aspirations as a child?
I wanted to be an astronaut since as early as I can remember — the first book I read in kindergarten was about Apollo, and since then I was hooked. I decided while still in school to do the things that were required to become an astronaut — technical degree, fighter pilot, test pilot. I never thought it would happen, but I went ahead and tried for it anyway.
What were some of your favorite hobbies as a kid and teenager?
Sports, especially baseball; I played five different sports in high school (none particularly well). Astronomy — I had a telescope. Photography — I had an SLR camera and spent a lot of time taking pictures. Computers — my dad bought me a TRS-80 when they first came out in 1980. Reading.
Did you know others who had similar aspirations in school but were not able to achieve the same goal?
All of my test pilot school classmates wanted to be astronauts, but many of them did not apply for the class of 2000 (my class) because we hadn’t even graduated from TPS (United States Air Force Test Pilot School) yet. I had the philosophy “why not give it a try, even though I’m young?” They ended up never getting picked. So I preach the philosophy “don’t tell yourself no.”
Tell us about the educational path you followed in high school and college that would lead you to outer space.
I went to the Air Force Academy and majored in applied mathematics and minored in French. A technical degree was mandatory, but the French minor is the reason I got picked, because it showed that I could live and work in an international environment.
What fueled your passion for becoming an astronaut?
Seeing what the Apollo astronauts had done. My mom was a secretary at NASA and my dad was a technician there, and my stepfather was an engineer there, so I was around space stuff my whole life. But never human spaceflight.
Tell us about your first launch into space. What were you thinking?
You’ve got to read chapter 1 of View From Above! Too many “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” stories to fit in an email.
First paragraph of chapter 1:
I had never seen that shade of blue before.
It was as if I had been raised in a black-and-white world and I was seeing color for the first time, reminding me of the first time
I saw my daughter’s blue eyes. This was my very first sunrise from space, flying over the Alps, and although I had seen thousands of astronaut photos of the Earth, nothing could have prepared me for this experience. The blue of our atmosphere was so intense that I could barely look away—until I noticed the Alps whizzing by underneath. I was piloting the space shuttle Endeavour, still climbing into orbit. We hadn’t yet performed the “OMS-2” rocket burn, so as I looked out of my pilot’s window and saw the Alps fly by, it was the closest daylight view of Earth that I would ever have on either of my two spaceflights. And it was amazing. Peaks were passing by every few seconds — mountain ranges that would take hours to drive across were literally whizzing by, one after the other, as we flew at 17,500 miles an hour. I thought of the years that I lived in Germany and France and took long vacations driving through those very valleys, and now I could see them in their entirety. Then, in only a minute or two, the Alps had become the Balkans and it was time to get back to work. We had a space shuttle to fly. Destination: International Space Station.
How would you describe zero gravity?
Like you are falling — because you are falling. You’re just moving so fast that you fall at the same rate the earth curves. So you need to train your brain not to panic, because you are in a constant state of free fall (in my case, for over seven months)
Explain what it’s like to see your home planet from outer space.
(Chapters 2-8) One thing, I now think of earth in terms of color — I got to know the geography of our planet by colors (blue oceans, white snow for Canada and Russia, brown and red deserts in Australia and Sahara, etc.).
First paragraph of chapter 2:
I now think of Earth in terms of colors.
It’s a different way of seeing things than what you notice on the ground. My first spaceflight was in February 2010, and our orbital path during that mission was such that we spent our waking hours over Europe and Asia during daylight, and over North America at night. The first good daylight pass, when I could soak in the view, showed me how clearly one color completely dominated all others: white. Europe, Russia, Siberia — they were blanketed in white, especially in the wintertime. It was not just one corner of the continent or one specific region that was white, but rather white started on one horizon and continued and continued and continued and seemingly wrapped around half of our planet. From the plains of Europe in the west to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the east, I was amazed at the absolute enormity of this stretch of land, and that there could be so much snow — complete whiteness that went on for thousands of miles. Gazing out of Endeavour’s windows at the vast expanse of colors, I realized what a different perspective on countries and nations I would gain from space.
Is there any movie that best depicts what it feels like to be in outer space?
A Beautiful Planet — our IMAX film that I helped make. Best ever “what it’s like in space” movie. The Right Stuff is the best about what it’s like to apply to be an astronaut.
How do you feel about how media depicts astronaut missions?
Well, there are some good media — specifically Eric Berger from Ars Technica and Bill Harwood from CBS. And a few others who are thoughtful and provide meaningful coverage. Most coverage, unfortunately, is simply repeating press releases or cheerleading, which is a great disservice for the public.
What is your ultimate goal in your profession as it pertains to people on earth?
My new profession is to share the experiences of spaceflight with people — and to motivate them to change their perspectives about our planet, our place in the universe, and their ability to reach their potential.
What was the most interesting experience and/or lesson you had while in space?
We had a very serious emergency (chapter 5) that caused us to work very closely with the Russians. It shows that we can work together as humans, and that we need to learn to get beyond the political bickering that so often makes life much more difficult than it needs to be.
First two paragraphs of chapter 5:
I was in my crew quarters in Node 2, reviewing procedures on my laptop and getting ready for the next task on my schedule. It was January 14, 2015, two days after we had captured the SpaceX-5 Dragon cargo ship. Butch and Samantha were also in Node 2 going about a routine workday. A day just like any other day — until that emergency Klaxon went off. I floated right out of my quarters. We hastily gathered to see what the warning panel could tell us. What type of emergency was this?
There were three possibilities: fire, dP/dt (air leak), and ATM (toxic atmosphere). Fire — well, this was self-explanatory. This light would illuminate if one of the American or Russian smoke detectors triggered. The dP/dt, or change in pressure, would go into alarm if one of our onboard air pressure sensors detected that the station pressure was dropping. And ATM, of the three, was the most serious emergency by far, because it probably meant that there was an ammonia leak into our cabin atmosphere. The station uses ammonia as a cooling fluid outside on the external truss because of its excellent chemical properties, but the station designers had to go to great lengths to ensure that it never gets inside the cabin and into the air that the crew breathes. During training, I was told that if I could smell ammonia, it would already be too late. Ammonia is deadly, so you just don’t mess around with it.
What has been the most discouraging experience on the road to becoming an astronaut and/or in your career?
Seeing the amount of bureaucracy and inertia that exists in the U.S. government. It’s just hard to get things done, because of the political science more than the rocket science.
How did you get involved in the Russian space mission? Given the nature of politics right now, what should we have a better understanding about when it comes to your work with the Russians?
Working with the Russians was the best part of my recent space flight. It’s part of flying to the ISS, and I really enjoyed them as people and also as partners in spaceflight. I often keep in touch with my former cosmonaut and trainer colleagues.
What is your current status when it comes to space missions?
I’m officially retired from the USAF and NASA, so I’m on to career 2.0
What do you see for your future in this field?
I’d like to inspire the public through speaking, writing and producing TV and film. And help inform our policy makers by engaging with them and providing advice when it’s warranted.
What do you tell people when they say they want to become an astronaut?
Don’t tell yourself no!
Single tickets are priced at $46 and $36 with group discounts available. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000, online at www.ticketmaster.com, or through the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Box Office, located at 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard. For more information call 805-449-ARTS (2787) or visit www.civicartsplaza.com. A View From Above is available at nationalgeographic.com.