AFRICA

Wild. In every sense of the word, the Africa I saw, if only for a few days, can be described with one word: “wild.” The animal life. Geology. Even the people. Africa seemed to be exactly the place from where I imagined that all of humanity originated from, eons ago. My brief trip there was only to South Africa, but wow, was it spectacular. After this trip I have reached all 7 continents, and now I have a new favorite place on this beautiful planet of ours: Cape Town, South Africa.

I had lived in North America, Asia, and Europe, and travelled in South America and Australia and the Middle East, but had never been to Africa or Antarctica (continents #6&7 for me) until a few months ago. I had the privilege of seeing Africa in all its diversity from space- some of the most incredible deserts and jungles and coastline on Earth. From that vantage point, South Africa seemed to be a convergence of all that Africa had to offer- desert, mountains, jungle, and city lights at night. But I always wondered what it was actually like from the ground.

Well, I recently put that wonder to rest. As a stopover enroute to Antarctica I visited Cape Town. And discovered many reasons it is my new “Favorite City On Earth.” People- it was really a pleasure to mix with the four main people groups here, listen to the 11 official languages of South Africa spoken, and get to know their laid-back lifestyle. Scenery- mountains, vineyards, big city, aqua green ocean beaches, and jungle, all very nearby. Food- best I’ve ever had. I had gourmet meals, at “average meal” prices in America. Climate- it was absolutely perfect- the southern hemisphere December was just lovely, temperatures in the 70s and 80s (20s C mostly) and lots of sun (unfortunately they are dying for some rain down there, a subject for a different blog).

It reminded me of a mix between San Diego, Phoenix, and Provence, with a distinctly African flair that had an occasional baboon blocking traffic. Of all of the unexpected things I encountered in Cape Town on my first trip to the African continent, seeing penguins was at the top of the list. There is an incredible colony of African penguins at Boulder Beach in Simons Town, just south of Cape Town. Although I had expected that Antarctica was where I would see penguins, it was a wholly wonderful thing to see these creatures near the southern most point of the African continent. #HiddenGem for sure! The Cape of Good Hope was also spectacular, with its prominent mountain peak and gorgeous turquoise waters. I could imagine explorers from centuries past rounding this point, hopeful of the riches that awaited them as they turned north on some new trade route.

And back to the food. If you like beef, vegetables, cheese, wine, bread; just about any kind of food, Cape Town is the place to go. I even had the most incredible and authentic Chinese food here. I must say, for the price and quality and taste and ambience of food and drink, this place just cannot be beaten. I’m no television expert (despite my initials), but if I were an executive at the Food Channel I would definitely be sending folks here for a show- or season of shows.

Most of all I was intrigued by the people of South Africa. I remember as a kid the controversy surrounding the Apartheid regime, and how Nelson Mandela had led the downfall of that enforced discrimination. And vaguely recalled that South Africa had been part of a proxy war between America and the Soviet Union, a distant battleground for the CIA and KGB during the “cold war” that was not always cold. I had heard of Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela was held prisoner for nearly 3 decades by an Apartheid government clinging to a 19th century philosophy of racial superiority that was ultimately doomed to the scrap heap of antiquated and failed ideology. But I honestly didn’t really understand the history here. It was interesting to learn of the Boer War, British and Dutch colonization, the triumphs of the Zulus and other tribes. I am a much richer person having learned about this history of the southernmost point of Africa, one of humanity’s true crossroads.

Most of all I was fascinated by the people of South Africa- of the four official races recognized by the government, how they get along today as well as in the past. About the economy and politics of the place- things that you would never think of if you just visited as a tourist and didn’t bother to talk to the locals. How South Africa has learned lessons in the post-apartheid era that countries around the world have learned- that it is much easier to have a revolution that solve entrenched social and economic problems.

This first visit was wonderful- I really just dipped my toes into the vast richness of all that is Africa- deserts, jungles, bustling cities, diverse cultures, and tragically, what often seems to be endless conflict in many regions.

This may have been my first time in Africa, but it will not be my last. There are still lots of lands yet undiscovered. The sand dunes of Namibia, the jungles of the interior, the safari of the Kenyan savannah, and the never-ending desert and geology of the Sahara. I can’t wait for my next trip to the cradle of civilization.

The End of Genius (?)

Vienna is one of the most spectacular cities on earth.  I had a chance to visit there for the first time in my life a few weeks ago.  And one word came to mind.  History. Lots of it.  Giant statues of military men who fought off invasions of one kind or another (mostly Ottomans, according to my tour guide).  Buildings and parks and architecture and majestic Royal Lipizzaner horses that were straight out of a fairy tale.

Vienna has been a crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe for centuries, with occasional visits from the Middle East (as the edge of the Ottoman Empire) and even the Romans.  The culture here is notable, with extraordinary royal palaces and gardens, including Hofburg House and St. Stephen’s Cathedral, showcasing artistry from Gothic, Baroque, and Romantic styles.  Her history as a focal point of Europe is both rich and occasionally tragic (as a significant player in the first and second world wars).  Interestingly Vienna is also the birthplace of psycho-babble (oops, I mean psychotherapy- Freudian slip)  (pun intended).

But more than all of this, Vienna may best be known for its contributions to music.  Mozart did some of his best work in Vienna, as did Franz Shubert (numbers I and II). Falco (of 80’s new wave “Rock me Amadeus” fame) was also from there.  And Beethoven moved to Wien (German spelling of Vienna) when he was 21, living most of his life there.

During this recent trip I had the honor of giving a speech in the Palais Nieder Oesterreich, a charming old palace with the most elaborately ornate decorations in its grand hall.  If you were 19thcentury European Nobility, I’m sure it was “ho-hum, just another palace.”   But to me, it was extremely impressive.  I later learned that this very hall was also the same room where Beethoven first performed his 5thsymphony.  Wow!  Simply to be in the room where one of the world’s great masterpieces was unveiled, much less give a speech in it, really struck a chord.

Which led me to a profound thought about “genius.”  What exactly does it mean?  Who were the geniuses of centuries gone by?  And who will be the geniuses of tomorrow?  Perhaps most sobering of all- is “genius” dead?

Since the focus of this trip was Vienna, let’s take a look at some artists from Europe as a starting point to answer this question.  Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh- the late 19thcentury French impressionists are my favorite, though the list of artistic geniuses originating in Europe could be debated and expanded upon by much more qualified students of art than myself.

How about authors?  Well, any such list should begin with the bard himself, William Shakespeare. Beyond that you could fill several Charles Dickens run-on sentences with a list of remarkable European authors: Jane Austen, Orwell, CS Lewis, Tolkien, Moliere, Saint-Exupery, de La Fontaine, Hugo, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin, etc.  The genius of these authors has inspired and challenged human thought since the advent of the printing press.

Since this whole question originated in a music hall, let’s consider the impact of old world musicians.  Beethoven. Mozart.  Bach.  Vivaldi. Debussy.  Chopin.  Tchaikovsky. Wagner.  Puccini.  The list goes on.  There are so many melodies that we recognize immediately without necessarily knowing who the composer was.  The musical genius that flowed from this part of the world has informed and influenced across the centuries, and its impact will continue to be felt for centuries to come.

Being in such an historic place made me think of how differently we live our lives today compared to a half a century ago, much less two or three centuries ago.  Today, we spend our childhood playing video games and learning to use social media, we do our school work and studies online, our relationships are not always deep or stable, entertainment is in the form of YouTube, Instagram posts, and on-demand videos and movies.  We often live in a state of “continuous partial attention” thanks to smart phones, and we rarely, if ever, have periods of “being still” and meditating or focusing our attention for extended lengths of time.  Epistolary skills have fallen by the wayside and few of us write journals or meaningful letters.  Communication, even with those whom we would traditionally be most intimate with, is often abbreviated by texting acronyms and emojis, and not via actual human contact.

Let’s contrast this to the way someone like Beethoven, or Shakespeare, or Victor Hugo may have spent their days.  Childhood play occurred if and when the children were able to invent games themselves using their imagination, often outdoors, and rarely with any external toys. Of course, without iPads or video games or helicopter parents. Because parents didn’t know what helicopters were (except DaVinci….).  Any education was accomplished in person, with a tutor, using textbooks and paper and pens, which in itself required a level of discipline simply to read and concentrate.  Entertainment was by whatever means your family or friends knew; if dad played the fiddle or mom could sing or if your neighbors were talented you could be entertained on Saturday night.  But an evening at the theater in town was a rare privilege indeed.  And there was most certainly not entertainment every night.

Communicating with each other was done in person or via letter.  Both of these skills are critical for human development and necessary for thriving as an adult.  As modern humans we have much more limited experience in these realms than we did in ages past.  Without actually writing your thoughts and emotions in a coherent manner, more than simple texts, and without taking time to get to know people by looking them in the eye and learning mannerisms and how to work together as partners.  I think that sometimes a letter or person to person interaction does a lot for our humanity.

Which brings me to the whole point of this blog.  Musicians, artists, authors, and other creative geniuses in the past led very different lives than we do today.  And, though I am just a pilot and would never pretend to be an authority on psychology, I believe that the daily habits and disciplines from centuries ago are much different than today.  And I would also be shocked if the differences in these daily habits did not lead to actual physiological differences, wiring the neurons in our brains differently.  My guess is that “modern man” is much better at quickly processing large quantities of information and multi-tasking, but not as good at developing profound and deep thoughts.

Of course there is real talent today, but I do believe with differences. Modern genius is often focused more on the immediate, and less on the profound.  Hollywood cinematography is stunning and I personally love creating art with a camera, but it is different than the genius of a Monet.  The waves of oil that undulate and mix and rise from his canvas are things that I could never do myself.  But I sure do appreciate them!

Perhaps the greatest difference between the centuries has manifested itself not in the pure arts, but in the marketplace of ideas.  Compare the writings and ideas of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Lincoln to those of today’s soundbite politicians, and, well, you get my point.  We are not exactly swimming in world-class political or philosophical thought these days.

Though, to be fair, our tweets are much more entertaining than anything that King George or Louis XIV ever put out!

We have talent today.  But I believe it is different than the genius of centuries gone by.  I would never trade how tremendously far society has come in technology, compassion, and equality.  Maybe in some ways we are lucky, being able to experience the best of both worlds- past and present.  Mozart and U2.  Monet and Spielberg.

It almost makes me think that we are living in the best of times, but also the worst of times.  You know, that sounds familiar.  I should google that to see who wrote it….

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.

 

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.

Antarctica

Camp Whichaway;  70°S, 11°E;  13 Dec 2017

Cold.  Of all of the adjectives to describe Antarctica, “cold” is most fitting, because it describes nearly every moment at every location on the world’s most remote continent.  Desert, white, dry, isolated, beautiful, harsh, stunning.  Those are other adjectives that can be used in abundance when talking about this magnificent continent, but in all honesty, much like the view from outer space, words really don’t do the place justice.  Nonetheless, in my very limited experience here during the Antarctic summer, I think cold is most ubiquitous and appropriate.

Words that do NOT describe Antarctica are: internet, Wi-Fi, mobile phones, traffic jams, twitter, strip malls, and just about anything else that clutters our modern lives.  Or insects, plants, the smell of flowers or rain or trash or anything else from the “real world.”  Or bacteria or viruses or disease from the mainland.  Of all of the things I loved about Antarctica, what it lacked was in many ways even better than what it had.

The North Pole is actually sea ice, covering the Arctic Ocean, so there is no true “land” there.  Antarctica is a different story.  It is a massive landmass, covered in ice; Earth’s seventh continent.  It is also the driest continent, truly a “white desert.”  Although you probably think of ice and snow when you think of Antarctica, much of that snow is very old, and when it “snows,” it is really just old snow blowing during the tremendous windstorms that take place on the continent, also known as “katabatic winds.”  My team camped at an Antarctic oasis, a place where those katabatic winds have scoured the rocky surface to reveal ancient bedrock and cleared the glaciers from much of their snow, leaving only blue ice behind.

There are a lot of interesting and unusual geographic and meteorological features about Antarctica- first of all, it is a very high continent.  The South Pole is more than 9,000’ above sea level, and on top of that, the air is actually thinner than it would be at a similar elevation at the equator. So, in addition to the extreme cold, you have to contend with altitude sickness.  There are some very impressive mountains here also.  The Vinson Massif is the tallest peak in Antarctica at 4,892 m (16,050’), and has been summited many times.  But there are probably tens if not hundreds of peaks here that have never been touched, so it really is a climber’s paradise.  For those who have the means to travel to the continent and the willingness to suffer…  there are mountaineering tales yet to be written.  

The ice here was fascinating.  As I flew into the continent, about 100 miles before our ice runway at “Wolf’s Fang” airstrip, I looked down and saw what I thought was the Southern Ocean.  It looked just like the sea, with waves. As we descended lower… I noticed the waves weren’t moving.  It was actually frozen “pack ice” building up against the continent.  This pack ice can extend for hundreds of kilometers, creating massive ice shelves, the most famous one being the Ross Ice Shelf.  Near our base camp the pack ice extends to the north for as far as the eye can see (more than 100 km), and as the ocean and wind push it against the continental land mass, it crumbles and buckles into a beautiful pattern that resembles otherworldly, violent, and unmoving waves- frozen in time, yet changing from day to day.

This time at the bottom of the world was also my first exposure to ice climbing. First of all, you need stiff boots that can support the bulky, metal, bear-trap like crampons. These boots also need to be warm, enough to withstand temperatures that are way south of 0° C. You also need to be roped together with your partners. During the Antarctic summer, ice and snow melt from the sun, and the melting and moving glaciers hide deadly holes called crevasses. Once you are off the glacier, you transition to walking on rocks. You must walk carefully, it’s even more difficult to walk across with crampons. There were all types of rocks; granite, igneous, sedimentary, quartz, and many more. Those rocks reminded me of the Martian landscape that NASA’s rovers have photographed so prolifically. Truly a geologist’s paradise. It is a miracle that one of our team hasn’t broken their neck yet.  

The voyage to the South Pole was very interesting.  First of all, it was far.  Our base camp was at 70° south latitude, which is 20°, or 1,200 nm, or about 2,300 km away from the actual pole.  We flew there in a converted DC-3 (or C-47), known as a Basler, that was built in 1943!  Soon after taking off I immediately noticed the amazing mountain range in this corner of the continent- “Queen Maud Land.”  These mountains do not look like the Rockies or Alps, they are more sharp and stark, and they jut up out of the ice in groups, like a herd of elephants in an endless savannah of white.  Our old bird was able to climb over the mountains with no trouble, thanks in part to the modern turboprop engines that it had been upgraded ($1M per engine, thank you very much).  I imagined C-47s flying the “Hump” over the Himalayas in Burma during WWII, at twice our altitude, with their original piston engines.  

After the Queen Maud Land mountains, the scenery was pretty easy to guess.  White.  Forever.  In all directions.  And flat.   Hour after hour after hour.  We had to stop for gas at a cleverly named base called FD83.  Fuel Depot 83° South.  There one can find a marked runway on the ice, a cache of fuel barrels that are parachuted in by a Russian Ilyushin transport aircraft at the beginning of the “summer” season.  A handful of tents and vehicles.  And 5 men.  2 Russians, 2 Icelanders, and one Argentine.  Who spend month after summer month there, at FD83, servicing the occasional transport airplane on its way to a remote corner of the continent.

There are several important locations in Antarctica- first of all, the geographic South Pole.  There is also the magnetic South Pole and the geomagnetic South Pole, which are related to the earth’s magnetic field, that shields us from deadly cosmic rays and also produces beautiful aurorae.  There is also another “pole,” called the “pole of inaccessibility.”  The point on the continent that is the hardest to get to.  As you may have guessed, FD83 is very close to that place.  My team had the privilege of spending the night there, on our way home from the South Pole.  Sleeping in a tent, on the ice, at the consensus “most remote place on earth.”  I really appreciated the work that those 5 men do, month after month, to enable humans to travel across the most extreme environment on our planet.

I always marveled that the original polar explorers were able to determine their position using only measurements of sun angles and time. Thankfully GPS works all the way down to 90° south latitude.  Beyond navigation, the physical work required to walk just a few hundred meters, wearing arctic clothing, at over 10,000’ pressure altitude, left me winded.  I just cannot imagine the physical stamina and ability to withstand pain that men like Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott had, as they made that grueling and freezing trek across the white desert more than a century ago.

 

Today the South Pole is inhabited by the American “Amundsen-Scott” station, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  “Impressive” does not do it justice.  In the summer months there are over 100 people from multiple countries who live there. Scientists, technicians, firemen (who also double as air traffic controllers), cooks, doctors, and even an HR person (you can’t get away from HR, even at the South Pole).  The science that is performed there is impressive, including all of the meteorological and geophysical experiments that you might imagine.  A young German physicist explained to me a fascinating one that looks for exotic neutrinos; subatomic particles that could tell us what the universe is made of.  I found this experiment particularly interesting because we had a similar particle detector on the International Space Station, called AMS-2, looking for anti-matter, as evidence of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

My brief stay in Antarctica was nothing short of remarkable, and in many ways reminded me of my space flights.  We were remote, an international team requiring special gear, and communication was limited.  The environment was incredibly hostile and not at all compatible with human life without resupply from the mainland (Mr. Shackleton’s remarkable tale of endurance notwithstanding).  It was a beautiful place whose description defies words, and I count myself lucky to have trekked across its hallowed ice and rocks.  Although this was my first trip to the “bottom of the world,” I surely hope that it will not be my last.

Relaxing in Space

People normally associate flying in space with excitement — launches, re-entry, spacewalks, avoiding asteroids, and fighting off invading aliens.

      Terry Virts - View From Above

Thankfully, during my more than seven months on the International Space Station, I never had to deal with aliens or incoming asteroids.  I definitely had my fair share of excitement, but beyond that, there were actually some very relaxing times.
First and foremost was spending time in the Cupola, a seven-windowed observation module.  I had the honor of installing it on my first spaceflight in 2010. The Cupola has since become every astronaut’s favorite place in space. And because it has seven windows, you feel like you are surrounded by space. Six of the windows wrap around you, and the biggest one is above you, looking “up” at Earth (the Cupola is on the “bottom” of the Space Station, so when you look up you see Earth).

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I spent as much of my limited spare time as possible in this module, in part to help film the IMAX movie “A Beautiful Planet,” in part to take photos for social media and my book, “View From Above,” and in part just to relax and enjoy a front-row seat to creation. It really was a view like no other! Even though the images of Earth from space are great, and the video, especially in IMAX format, is stunning, there is just nothing that compares to seeing it in person. For me, seeing Earth from space was an emotional experience, it’s truly awe-inspiring.

Even after 200 days, the experience never got old, I continued to look out the window with feelings of joy and inspiration, and I often thought to myself, wow, I can’t believe I’m seeing this.

There were so many incredible things to see — our planet in daylight, cities at night, aurora, sunrises and moonsets, our galaxy with its billions of stars. But one of the best, and most relaxing things to do was to watch thunderstorms, especially over Africa, but also South America and the South Pacific. The size of those storms was impressive, reaching hundreds of miles long. And the number of flashes was just mind-boggling — I would see tens of flashes per second. Storms always fascinate me on Earth, but to see them from space was both incredible and unanticipated. I never expected to see such a display of light and power.

A few times, when we had a night pass over Africa, I brought my portable Bluetooth speaker and iPad down to the Cupola. I turned out all of the lights to make it dark inside and waited. You can see a storm as it approaches, maybe 1,000 miles away you can start to see the flashes.

And as we got closer I’d play Enya’s “Storms in Africa” and just float, letting go of the handrails on the Cupola’s walls, not touching anything.

As the storms got closer I could see the cloud structure in each flash, some reaching up in the sky and pointy, some flat and spread out, others round, and many having scalloped tops (like a many-layered upside-down wedding cake). It was an extraordinary experience perfectly paired with Enya’s haunting music.

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I could get my thesaurus out to try to come up with adjectives to describe this, but it just wouldn’t do it justice. Take my word, if you ever have a chance to fly in space, this should be on your to-do list.

It’s one of the most calming and relaxing things I’ve ever done and it has left me in reverence for our astonishing planet.

For me, music was an important part of relaxing while in space, especially at bedtime. Sleep in space was absolutely wonderful. I would crawl completely into my sleeping bag, head and arms and hands and everything inside, zipped up. And float. I wouldn’t be velcroed or clipped to the wall, I’d just free-float. With my Bose headsets on, listening to music. My personal favorite was Hans Zimmer’s “Interstellar” soundtrack; I drifted off to sleep for about a month listening to that every night (at that time I hadn’t been introduced to Sleep Stories yet!).

Also, about halfway through my mission, the Russian psychologists sent my Cosmonaut crewmates some “sounds from Earth,” like waves, rain, birds chirping, a busy café at lunchtime, etc.  Those sounds quickly became a favorite way for my whole crew to reconnect with Earth; everyone loved them, Americans, Italians, and Russians. I fell asleep to the sound of rain for about a month.

These relaxing periods were really critical, both for keeping psychologically decompressed after busy periods of work and also for getting rest. My tendency was (and is back here on Earth) to stay up too late, working well past bedtime.

Listening to music was the best way for me to chill and eventually fall asleep.


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In my latest book, View From Above, I share the astronaut’s view of the world, offering stunning aerial views of our planet and the vastness that surrounds it. The colors, shapes, details—and the stories they tell—are endlessly fascinating. I offer glimpses of everyday life in orbit, including candid shots of fellow astronauts Scott Kelly and Samantha Cristoforetti. Amid this amazing show of Earth spectacles, I reflect upon how the astronaut’s point of view has shaped my life and spirit. Enjoy photographs that will astonish and inspire a new way of looking at the world.

Check out an excerpt from my book, A View From Above, in Calm’s Sleep Stories Collection.

A new era for the Birds

From the time I was born until I went to college at the US Air Force Academy, the Baltimore Orioles did not have a losing season.  That seems almost unfathomable today.  From the dominant teams that were at the top of baseball in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  To the World Series teams of 1979 and 1983, they just never lost, with the old “Oriole Way.”

And after more than a decade of pain in the 2000s, it has been really fun to be an Orioles fan for the past five years.  The core group of Adam Jones and Matt Wieters and Zach Britton and Manny and JJ and Chris Davis and so many others have been really fun to watch.  Every September there has been interesting baseball, and occasionally in October.  The Buck and Dan era has been good for the Birdland Soul.

However, speaking for myself, what I really want is a World Series championship.  Or better yet, a string of competing for one year in and year out.  What we’ve had recently has been fun.  But to be honest, hoping for a winning season, or trying for that last wildcard spot, is not why you compete.

It’s time for some really tough decisions to be made in order to make the Orioles into a world championship team.  If those decisions are not made and then aggressively pursued, we will fail.  If the Orioles stay on their current track, they will never reach the World Series- they aren’t 3 or 5 years out, they will simply never get there.  Tinkering with free agent and rule 5 pieces here and there means that at the end of September we will be hoping for a .500 record or counting the days until spring training starts.  Forever.

I moved to Houston 17 years ago and they have become my adopted, second team.  I used to root for an Orioles- Astros World series, now I root for an O’s – Stros ALCS.  I was at the ALCS game 7 in Houston when they beat the Yankees, and I was at Dodger stadium for game 2 to see one of the wildest WS games in history.  This Astros team is GOOD and fun to watch!

Terry Virts snaps a selfie at the Astros vs Dodgers World Series Game 2

About 6 years ago I had lunch with former Astros President George Poustolos, who was proposing something crazy.  As I listened to his pitch about the limitations of being a mid-sized market team and how the Cardinals were consistent contenders and how the 2004-2005 playoff Astros had been built by getting older players at the expense of the farm team, he painted a pretty bleak picture, unless drastic action was taken.  He wanted to completely dismantle the big-league club.  He warned that it would be ugly.  He had a timeline.  He was asking for patience.  And by looking at the cold hard facts, there was no escaping it.  The Astros could muddle in mediocrity, forever.  Or they could make the tough decision and go for it.

And wow was he right.  They went through three consecutive years of 100+ loss seasons. They lost so many games in the latter innings because they just didn’t have major league quality pitchers to finish games.  The stadium was empty for years.  Their payroll was literally just barely above the minimum possible- there was a time when nearly every member of their 25-man roster was making league minimum.

And things started to happen in the background that only die-hard Astros fans noticed.  They started having draft picks and improving on a farm system that had actually been rated last in MLB.  Players like Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers and Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and Dallas Keuchel started to show up.  They placed their faith in data and not opinion- I love their front office sign that reads “In God we trust- all others must bring the data.”

And then in 2015, out of the blue, the Astros shocked the baseball world and made it to the playoffs.  And were a few outs away from beating the eventual-champ Royals and going to the ALCS.  Less than 4 years after the experiment had begun.  An experiment in which the Astros went all-in, and were willing to pay the price.

Today they have one of the best teams in baseball.  Their position players 1-8 are the best in MLB, and this year they often played teams that didn’t even have one player who would be a starter on the Astros.  Their pitching is so ridiculously deep that they have a starter who went 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA who was left out of the playoff rotation and relegated to the bullpen.

So, Orioles fans, it’s time to be honest.  We are not on a path to the World Series, and won’t ever be, without a very painful rebuilding that will last at least 3, maybe 5 years.  The mantra that “you don’t rebuild in the AL East” is just false.  Other clubs in the AL east are hoping that we continue on exactly the course that we are on- it will guarantee that they don’t have to face an Orioles’ team as good as the Astros in the future.

The path down this road is long and hard and doesn’t have a guaranteed outcome, other than a few very bleak years.  Those years can be mitigated by picking up a few reasonable major – league caliber players, but there will be LOTS of pain.  Fans will have to watch the Frederick and Bowie and Ironbird box scores as much as the the big-league club.

Buy low, sell high.  It’s the one thing I learned when I went to business school.  Everyone will have to be on the table.  By that I mean everyone. The front office will have to decide on a timetable- will we compete in 5 years?  If so, let’s build the cadre of players that will be under team control and young and uber-talented, 5 years from now.  And that means putting all of our favorite players on the market.  Getting tons of draft picks and minor league prospects.  Deciding if selling high means November or December or July.

Like I said, there is no guaranteed outcome, but I’ve had a front-row to the rise and fall of several teams, and I can say a few things emphatically.  1)  I really really want to see the Orioles contend for the championship, and soon.  2) That will not happen ever, using our current strategy.  3)  It worked for my “other” team, the Astros.

I’ve been counting backwards from 11, the number of games the Astros still need to win, this year.  So far I’m at 8 down, 3 to go.  And I hope I’ll be making that same count for the birds in the not-too-distant future.

Terry Virts is a Baltimore native, an Orioles fan through thick and thin, a former astronaut, speaker, and author, and Monday morning (baseball executive) quarterback.

Upcoming events in Texas

  • B&N Texas A&M store
    October 27, 2017
    College Station, TX
    FRI
    3:00-5:00pm

An Astronaut’s Science Fiction #ReadingList

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.