I am in the middle of a book tour, something I never thought I would do. And I’m sure my high school English teachers would agree. But after I decided to leave NASA and start a new “career,” writing a book was at the top of my to-do list. I didn’t want to write an astronaut memoir- that story has been told a hundred times. And I didn’t want to make a reference book, with a photographic atlas of Earth’s geography. I wanted to create something unique- taking the experience of spaceflight, of what it feels like, of how it impacted me as a person, of the beautiful views, and capturing that in book format. First of all through photos- photography is what I really love most. But also through words. And I did not want to use a ghost writer, or “Terry Virts with….” I wanted to write View From Above all by myself. With some help from my editors, I was able to do just that. To make what I hope is a beautiful National Geographic photography book, but also a book of compelling stories that take the reader to space, riding the rocket, experiencing emergencies, seeing our beautiful planet and the cosmos, being outside on a spacewalk, and just reflecting on the impact that leaving Earth has.
The process of writing this first (but I hope not last) book has made me think back on what authors influenced me. I’m not a great reader, in fact I’m pretty dang slow. But I do enjoy it. Over the years I have loved reading Tom Clancy and other similar novels, political books about presidents and Henry Kissinger and foreign affairs, historical fiction, sports books and autobiographies, books about my Christian faith, science and astronomy and physics books, economics and finance books (macro is my favorite…). Well, you get the point, I’ve read a lot of books on a lot of subjects, I definitely have varied interests.
But one genre stands out, and it shaped me in my childhood and provided me with a lot of the motivation I needed to go on to do some of the things I’ve done, like flying jets and being an astronaut. That genre is Science Fiction. I went through a phase as a teenager, especially during the summer when it was either read a good book or watch the early days of MTV and ESPN and movie reruns on HBO, where I read a lot of science fiction.
Arthur C. Clarke stands out as science fiction author who influenced me the most. 2001: A Space Odyssey is of course his most famous work, and it was one of the rare novels that was also turned into a great movie (one that I watched while I was in space- talk about surreal). He correctly predicted a lot of the technology we use on the ISS, there’s even commercial spaceflights going to the station today. There was however one notable exception, artificial gravity. NASA has chosen to use an exercise machine to help astronauts combat the effects of weightlessness instead of providing us with artificial gravity, and that was probably a smart idea. After 200 days in space, I had lost 0.0% of my bone density, so exercise is a lot more cost-effective than making a giant rotating space station. I also loved the sequel, 2010. I remember seeing that movie as a teenager during the height of the Cold War, where US and Soviet astronauts were working together in space during a conflict on Earth. How poignant for me when, 30 years later, I was commander of a joint American – Russian – European crew, in the middle of Crimea and Ukraine and Sanctions and some of the worst ever West / Russia relations. And we got along very well in space, setting an example for the world to see how people can work together for a common purpose, setting aside political differences of our respective governments. That was my proudest accomplishment as the ISS commander.
Mr. Clarke’s works had a very special place in my heart, as they really reflected my actual career in more ways than I could ever imagine. But his best work, in my opinion, was a book called Rendezvous with Rama, about an alien spacecraft that comes zooming through our solar system. We don’t know where it was from or who lives in it, and I can still vividly remember his tale of astronauts climbing inside that spaceship to see who or what was in there, 35 years after I first read that book. What a great piece of fiction!
Isaac Asimov was another writer who really impacted me. One of the many amazing things about Isaac is the fact that he was born Russian and immigrated to the US. Wow! I’ve had to go through the process of learning the Russian language, and it is impressive beyond belief that he was able to write (prolifically) in English, as a non-native speaker. Beyond that, he really based his work on science (as did Mr. Clarke). I devoured his Foundation and Empire books one summer, with his idea of “Psychohistory,” or the ability to mathematically model and predict the behavior of large populations. A sort of scientific “predestination” doctrine. It was fascinating to me, and refreshing to see him put the “Science” in Science Fiction.
Riverworld was a series of books by Philip Jose Farmer, that was a little more on the fiction side of the science fiction scale, but nonetheless I loved. In this strange world, humans are randomly reconstructed in a different location and time after they die- something the main characters don’t know at first, but once they find out, they use this ability to travel down a tremendous river. One that goes back in time the further you go down the river. So as the characters die, they are reincarnated at a different spot on the river, which corresponds to a different century in history. One scene still stands out to me- the hero died and was immediately reincarnated in prehistoric times, where he was promptly eaten by a T. Rex and sent off to another era. The shortest episode of reconstruction in the book!
This has been a blast to remember the books I read as a kid, and to think of the impact they had on me. Although I was a math major in college, and always thought that technical subjects were the most important, the older I get the more I realize that things like imagination and creativity and communication are really the most important skills we can have. For without them, technical achievements won’t deeply impact people.
I have a strange feeling that this idea could be developed into a sci-fi novel. Maybe that will be for the next blog…… In the interim I’d love to hear your stories of your favorite science fiction works and why. Post them on my “Astronaut Terry Virts” Facebook page.