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).
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.
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.
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.
‘Sometimes you need to hear what you don’t want to hear just to learn other viewpoints or find out what’s going on in the world.’
NASA Astronaut Terry Virts is one of only four astronauts ever to pilot the NASA space shuttle, fly on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, perform space walks and hold the role of Commander of the ISS. Not a bad resume, huh?
He also spent over 200 days in space at the International Space Station (ISS) and took more photos of Earth from space than any other astronaut. It’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about not sweating the small stuff. Because, as his pictures show, we are the small stuff.
The Huffington Post Australia caught up with Virts on his first trip Down Under to talk about, well, everything. From perspective to politics, mental health to social media and what it’s like working with Russians.
Has anything on Earth changed your perspective?
I’ve been asked every question but I’ve never been asked that. I had a chance to go to Harvard business school and we were in the amazing cafeteria and I said ‘there are probably 2 – 3 billion people on Earth who have never and will never once in their lifetime, eat the meal that we’re eating right now’.
During the day you can’t see much human activity, but during the night you can and what you really see is wealth.
What about Space?
One of the main things was wealth. During the day you can’t see much human activity, but during the night you can and what you really see wealth. It’s clear that some parts of the Earth are wealthy and some parts are not. Not in any way do I think we should take from ‘here’ and give to ‘there’, but I think we should raise ‘there’ and that will help everyone.
It was particularly interesting to compare North Korea to South Korea.
How do you keep your perspective in check day-to-day?
We have so many things — email, your schedule, your relationships, stress and disasters — so I can just close my eyes and see space and the amazing sunset that I saw so many times and think ‘OK, there’s been a billion of these sunsets. There’s going to be a billion more and so whatever this stress is will go away and in the big scheme of things it’s not that important’. Not to think in any way that we’re meaningless, but just to realise that the problems that we have are probably not as big of a deal as we think they are.
What effect has social media had on our perspective?
It fragments our society and you can see that in elections across the U.S. and Europe. In the 60s or 70s there were only a few media channels. But now, you hear what you want to hear and it reinforces the views that you already have.
Sometimes you need to hear what you don’t want to hear just to learn other viewpoints or find out what’s going on in the world.
It used to be that everyone had a common reference frame and now our reference frames are diverging and it’s harder to see each other’s point of view than ever before. If you like space, you hear about space all the time. You follow me on Twitter and get space.com updates in your Facebook feed. And if you don’t like space you have no idea there’s even a space station up there because you’re watching fashion news, or something else.
Sometimes you need to hear what you don’t want to hear just to learn other viewpoints or find out what’s going on in the world.
How did you keep your mental health in check while in space?
It’s super important because I was there for 200 days in this can. There’s places you can go, but I couldn’t just walk outside. My mentality was ‘I’m going to enjoy space while I’m here. I’m going to have the rest of my life on Earth to do what I want to do. But while I’m here I’m going to enjoy it’ so that was the most important thing, just having that attitude.
They would also send movies or TV programs and on weekends I’d have video conferences with people and family, there were ways to stay connected.
That attitude was key to having a good 200 days, because some people get up there and they can’t wait to get back. My mission actually got extended by a month because a Russian rocket blew up in between two American rockets blowing up and it delayed my replacement crew. We were literally stuck in space and we didn’t know when we were coming back to Earth. But we had a great attitude, so we did fine.
What’s it like working with Russians?
This was one of my biggest points in space, because you’ve got the Russians and they’re one of our biggest partners on the space station. While I was in training the Ukrainian Civil War happened with the help of Russia, and as we were launching, Russia annexed Crimea. My crewmate, Anton who is from Sevastopol, is like the hero of Crimea.
We had to worry about practical things, not politics, and we got along great.
While we were in space the U.S. and the West imposed sanctions on Russia, and all of these significant world events were happening and in the midst of that we had to work together, because we’re in this tube and on the other side of that is instant death.
We had to worry about practical things, not politics, and we got along great. So we became friends and worked together well while our governments sucked. We do a lot of science in the space station, but I think the most important part is the international relations.
It’s kind of amazing what you can achieve when you work together instead of compete with one another.
Right. Unfortunately it’s good domestic politics to bash each other. Hillary was a big anti-Russia person and of course the Russians love it when Putin ‘stands up to the West’ so in general it’s an incentive system to pin countries up against one another instead of working together. It would be much better for us to work together, but that’s not the way politicians who are worried about the next two-year election cycle think.
In general, when it comes to politics, I try to take the 500-year view. In 500 years, is this stuff going to matter?
Has your view on politics changed dramatically since spending 200 days in space?
In general, when it comes to politics, I try to take the 500-year view. In 500 years, is this stuff going to matter? Communism and democracy changed the course of human history, and printing a bible changed all of Western civilisation. So those are the kinds of things that people will still be talking about in 500 years. Not most of the silliness we talk about now. So I think it gave me the 500-year view instead of the next-election-cycle view.
In space it kind of didn’t matter. If something happened on Earth it would have no effect on us at all. Interestingly, if you think about 9/11, unless you lived in New York City you would have never known about that had it not been the lead story 24/7 for so many years. 3,000 people died which is horrendous but, for example, in Texas they have these billboards that show you how many people have died on the roads. And about 3,000 people have died on the roads in Texas every year, so we have a 9/11 every year in the state of Texas but you guys don’t write about it.
These stories that we think are really big, and 9/11 was a really big story, in all honestly nobody would have ever even known about it had it not been for the news cycle.
Does the media have a responsibility to contextualise these events?
It’s fine to report a story, but you should also put it in perspective. Usually, these stories aren’t in perspective and the whole world is on fire and everybody is going to die because of ISIS, except that we’re not. It sucks if you’re in Syria and those people definitely need help, but most of the world is fine.
Nuclear war between America and Russia, on the other hand, is really big news. That might end human civilisation so that needs to be handled as adults.
What about the U.S. election?
Our presidential election is the perfect example. Half of America felt like they wanted to not have another establishment politician. It wasn’t like 10 percent of America. Most of that half might not have even really liked him, but they were so fed up with establishment politicians they went ahead and pulled the lever.
The reality is, not everything about Donald Trump is evil and Hillary Clinton is not the most evil human of all time.
Our media in the U.S. has become cheerleaders, or nothing but critics. The reality is, not everything about Donald Trump is evil and Hillary Clinton is not the most evil human of all time.
What about the environment?
People ask astronauts ‘what’s your favourite planet?’ and it’s not Mars or Jupiter, it’s Earth. We have everything we need to survive right here. In saying that, when I tried to film Beijing I never could because all you could see was smog. And in the Amazon you can see deforestation. So there’s some man made environmental messes you can see from space. But 99 percent of the planet really does look beautiful, it’s not all doom and gloom. You can have success and fix problems.
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.
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,”
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.
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.
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.
It may be out there, it’s a gigantic universe, trust me. There might be something out there, but I don’t know.