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.

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.

The ex-Commander of the International Space Station chats about all things space, environment and perspective

 

Our lives are so intertwined with the digital world that it can often be quite difficult to step back and get some perspective. Terry Virts knows all about that.

Former Commander of the International Space Station, Virts has spent more than 200 days in space, and he’s gained a helluva lot of perspective about daily life on Earth, environmental degradation, and the Earth’s beauty. He’s also had a lot of time to think about humans colonising the universe, which we’re sure Elon Musk would love to know about.

One of four astronauts to pilot the NASA space shuttle, Virts has flown on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and has been on three spacewalks. He has also taken more photographs of Earth from space than any other astronaut.

Terry Virts starred in the IMAX/ NASA collab film, A Beautiful Planet, which is currently showing in Australia. He’ll visit Sydney and Melbourne in November to participate in the School of Life talk titled ‘Terry Virts On Perspective and Our Beautiful Planet’. He will also speak at Wired for Wonder .

He took some time to chat to Techly about daily life at the International Space Station, and which photo (of the thousands he has taken) he is proudest of.

Of all NASA astronauts, you’ve spent the third most days continuously in space. Most of us will never be able to experience that first-hand. It’d be great if you could give us a tiny glimpse of what space is like.

Sure, it was an amazing experience. I flew two different times in space. One time was in a space shuttle, which was a two-week-long flight, called an assembly flight, which was the last and final assembly mission of the International Space Station. We brought up two modules called Cupola and Tranquility. Tranquility became the ‘living module’; that’s where the bathroom, the exercise equipment, air and water-recycling equipment are.

The other module we brought up was Cupola, which is a 7-window module that’s the most amazing place, I think, on Earth or off Earth because it’s from there that most of my pictures were taken. It’s everybody’s favourite place on the Station.

Terry Virts (pictured) photographing Earth from the Cupola module

My next flight was on a Russian Soyuz. That’s how we got to the Space Station. And that was the one where I did the 200-day mission.

That was a different experience, where we didn’t really know what we were gonna do if we launched. We had been trained with a lot of different skills but you never know if something’s gonna break or if you’re gonna have to do a space walk, or if you’re gonna have to repair from the inside.

NASA went through an 8-month period where 3 different vehicles blew up, cargo ships. [These occurred in 2014-15]. The first one was orbital Cygnus, which had a lot of my stuff on board. And then, while we were in space, the Russian Progress blew up, and that is the same Soyuz rocket that people launch on, so they delayed our replacement crew, which meant that we ended up staying in space longer because they didn’t want this long gap without three people there.

And then, right at the end of the mission, when we got back to Earth, a SpaceX rocket blew up and that was supposed to bring back a lot of my stuff.

So that was a serious time to have lost three vehicles back to back to back. Luckily the ones since have been working and they’ve had enough spare parts and margin, but there was a time when it was kinda iffy.

But what is it like in space? That’s hours and hours worth, you know, I’m actually writing a book on that now.

Having experienced such an infinite understanding of time and space, how do you then sit back at home and adjust to ‘Earthly’ time?

Right, that’s a great question. On my first space flight, I landed [on Earth] on my fifteenth day. I landed, I was wobbly and dizzy but doing pretty good. We went through a bunch of medical checks, were reunited with our families, and went back to HQ to go to sleep.

It was weird. I was in this room that I’d been in just two weeks before, and I turned on the TV and the news was on and I watched it for about thirty seconds and I thought ‘I have to turn it off’. I just couldn’t watch it because it was so silly, was so meaningless. A couple hours before, I’d been in orbit looking down on the Earth so the perspective that I gained was super helpful. If some friends of mine are struggling, I always tell them ‘out in space right now there’s the most amazing sunrise you could ever imagine, there are sights you’ve never dreamed of,’

It keeps the mundanity of the Earth in perspective.

A key aspect of you ‘School of Life’ talks is ‘perspective’. What lessons have you learnt from your time in space about humanity, Earth, and yourself?

You can’t see human activity [from space]. You can see cities, you can look down and see London, or Paris, but they don’t really stand out, and you have to know what you’re looking for. But at night-time you can really see a lot, and what you see if not necessarily population. What you see is wealth.

There are parts of the Earth that are very bright and don’t have a big population, and then there’s a billion people in Africa and it’s completely dark from Cairo down to Johannesburg. So that was an interesting visual way to see how billions of people are living.

I remember talking to some of my Russian cosmonaut friends and saying “there’s six of us in space and there are over 6 billion people down there. We’re one in a billion, that’s how fortunate we are,”

France, England and Germany at night

You’re known for your space photography. What was the first photo you took from space, and which photo are you most proud of?

The one I’m most proud of, that’s an interesting question. The first picture I took in space was of a friend’s baby. Right before I launched, they gave me a picture of this baby so I took a picture of this baby in front of the window with the Earth in the background.

The one that I was most proud of was actually my last picture.

I had been there for 200 days, and I took the most pictures ever, of anybody. I took over 300,000 still images. I just went down by myself into the Cupola module and I wanted to get one more sunset picture. So I set up the camera for a starburst and I took the scratch paint off, which causes a lot of blurring, so I had the perfect shot. I took this picture, and I looked at the back of the camera, and it was just so amazing and I said ‘Alright, I’m done’ and I didn’t take any more pictures.

As soon as I took that picture, I got in my space suit and came back down to Earth. It was pretty cool.

You speak so fondly of your time in space. Is there anything that you’d want to experience again?

You know, weightlessness is just…it’s fun. You can experience it on Earth for a second…until you hit the ground. It’s alien, it doesn’t exist on Earth. It is something that I miss. It takes some time to get used it. It’s like learning how to walk, except you have to learn instantly. You don’t have time to learn, you just have to do it quickly.

It takes a bit of time to get used to it. I remember my first few days on my first flight. I had a really bad headache and I had a hard time moving my head. And then, on the third morning, my body figured it out. And I had a smile on my face for the rest of that mission. Yeah, floating is fun.

You’ve been the Commander of the International Space Station, and worked with NASA for years. How did you carve out your career as an astronaut?

When I was a kid, the first book I ever read was about Apollo. I just grew up loving space. My parents got me a telescope and a computer and I taught myself how to program. I never really thought it was possible because it’s crazy to be an astronaut. I went to the Air Force Academy and became a pilot, and then a test pilot. So I was kinda checking the boxes and keeping my options open. And then I got really lucky and got picked.

One thing I would say, even if not to become an astronaut, is ‘Don’t tell yourself no’. Don’t eliminate yourself from what your dream is, what your talents are.

 

I haven’t yet seen ‘A Beautiful Planet’, but I’d love to see it when it does come out. What do you think is most beautiful about our planet. Given the environmental changes, what should be done to preserve that beauty?

As far as the environment goes, the Earth is just awesome. There are so many things about it that are beautiful. The way I learned the earth was by colour. Actually, Australia is the most amazing, colourful place. We could be in that Cupola module, exercising or whatever, and everything would just turn red and I’d know that we were over Australia. I didn’t even have to look out the window.

Australia, as seen from space

 

96% of the time, the view of the Earth was beautiful, but there were some environmental problems that you could see from orbit. Deforestation was one that I noticed.The island of Madagascar was half green and half brown because the forest was gone. You could see that the Betsiboka River was just red, and that was just clay running off from the mountains.

If you can see a giant environmental mess from space, you know that just can’t be good.

Most days, the Amazon is covered by clouds, so you can almost never see it, but when I did you could see big areas where the environment had been farmed.

From my perspective, the one human impact, other than deforestation was actually visible in China. East Asia, and especially China, is just brown. Whenever you look at it, it’s just foggy and brown. We could never get a picture of Beijing.

What would you say those who still deny the existence of climate change?

What I would say is, whether you agree with climate change or not, it just can’t be a good idea to be putting 2 trillion tonnes of pollution into the air every year.

Hopefully we can get to a situation where we have better ways of producing energy without having to use up what is a finite resource. In fact the director of our IMAX film, Toni Myers, her dream is to push for nuclear fusion, which is a very clean energy. If we could learn how to do that, life would change for all of humankind, and for the planet. But it’s a hard problem to solve.

Speaking of finite resources, Elon Musk has announced his plans to get humans to live on Mars. He very optimistic. Do you share his optimism, do you think it’s feasible for humans to be living on other planets?

I think that Mars is our 21st-century destination. It’s just the next natural step, in the long term. Mars has a 24.5 hour day, some resources, water. There’s a lot of reasons for us to live there.

It’s a hard problem, to get that far with a lot of mass, with food, water, air, people, and to then bring them back. But I think it’s doable. Anyway, I’m a fan. I don’t know if Elon’s plan is gonna work or not, but I certainly applaud him for trying. There’s not a lot of people who are willing to spell out a specific architecture and plan, and that’s what he did. I really applaud him for that.

Everyone will say we’re going to Mars, but no-one has a plan.

It’ll be interesting to see what the next few steps are.

Do you believe that Earth is the only planet supporting intelligent life? That’s something that people are constantly interested in.

Right. We did a lot of experiments in space involving biology. I did a lot on my own body, my brain, heart, eyes. A lot of scans, laser scans, ultrasounds. Life is so amazing that I don’t think it would ever randomly form.

Here’s the analogy I use. My garage never gets cleaner by itself. It requires some intelligent person to clean stuff up and make it happen. Making a life form that replicates itself, and thinks and has feelings, that can jump and all the things that life can do, and work for 40, 50, 80 years. That’s amazing. That’s my view on it.

View of New Guinea

It may be out there, it’s a gigantic universe, trust me. There might be something out there, but I don’t know.

View of the Middle East
Terry experiencing weightlessness

Read the Original Article at Techly.com.au