A Conversation with Col. Terry Virts (ret), NASA Astronaut & Former Commander of the International Space Station (ISS)

A Conversation with Col. Terry Virts (ret), NASA Astronaut & Former Commander of the International Space Station (ISS)

Colonel Terry Virts (ret) served in the United States Air Force as a fighter pilot, test pilot, and NASA astronaut. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and Harvard Business School. On Feb. 8, 2010, he made his first spaceflight as the pilot of the Space Shuttle Endeavor during mission STS-130. His next launch was onboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-15M on Nov. 23, 2014, from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. In March of the following year, Terry assumed command of the International Space Station (ISS) as Commander of Expedition 43. Virts has spent more than seven months in space.

Virts currently travels worldwide inspiring audiences with stories from space and his insights into life on Earth. He brings his unique perspective to businesses, covering diverse topics such as: politics, the environment; global wealth; intercultural leadership; crisis and risk management; innovation; strategy and vision; and decision making. He recently directed his first film, One More Orbit about his Guinness World Record-breaking mission in July 2019, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. His latest book, How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth, released worldwide on Sep. 15, 2020. Virts also authored Apo11o: To the Moon and Back, a collector’s edition reproduction of the original flight plan Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and the mission control team in Houston used to plan and execute man’s first mission to land on the moon.

He is currently involved in several television and film projects, serves on corporate boards, writes and promotes public policy.  He is one of only four astronauts to have piloted a Space Shuttle, flown a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, performed spacewalks, and commanded the ISS. Virts has a unique perspective about the Earth, having taken more photos from space than any other astronaut.

In this exclusive interview, I speak to Colonel Terry Virts about what it’s really like to be an astronaut, his experience of spaceflight, faith, aliens, and whether we will ever become a multi-planetary species.

Q: What is the launch phase of the mission like?

[Col. Terry Virts]: I thought I’d done a lot – I was a fighter pilot, test pilot, had flown a whole bunch of airplanes and thought the space shuttle was just another plane, it’s not. There are three main engines, they light up about 6 seconds before lift-off and the roar was incredible. I was sat there thinking wow, this is a sound I’ve never heard before, something serious is about to happen’. Then the solid rocket motors lit-up, and this 4.4-million-pound (2.2 million kilo) beast lurched off the launchpad. It was night-time on my first flight, there were some clouds 5,000ft above us – and night turned into day from the fire of the rockets reflecting off the clouds.

The vibration and acceleration forces are huge. The fastest sports cars in the world only accelerate for a few seconds before they have to turn or hit their top speed, but we accelerated like that for 8.5 minutes. It was spectacular.

Q:  What prepares you to see the Earth from space?

[Col. Terry Virts]: Nothing prepares you to actually see the Earth from space. After that 8.5-minute ride, I saw the planet for the first time. It was night and the engines shut down as we were flying over the North Atlantic. It was my first sunrise from space, and I was mesmerized. I had to consciously tell myself to stop looking outside the shuttle I had work to do! I remember hearing some of my fellow crewmates say, ‘ah, another view of the Earth, let’s get back to work…’ – I spent more than 7 months in space, and even on my last day that view never got old.

Q:  Did visiting space change you psychologically?

[Col. Terry Virts]: I’ve thought a lot about how visiting space changed me. I think it’s made me less black and white, less uptight maybe. I don’t tend to get as excited about things as easily. Celebrity for example, doesn’t get me excited or impressed. I like some celebrities and their talents, but I don’t get ‘starstruck’ whereas maybe I’d be impressed by a movie star. I feel like I also take positions on things less easily. On some issues there is clearly a right and a wrong side to be on, but a lot of things in life aren’t’ like that – and somehow my attitude changed, I’m less black and white.

The perspective of seeing the Earth from space has rewired our brain. We used to have a 2-dimensional view, everything was North, South, East or West. That was our existence for hundreds of thousands of years. Then we became 3-dimensional with aircraft and rockets. Now with Hubble and other space telescopes we have a 4-dimensional view of our universe. When you see a galaxy that’s a billion light years away, you’re seeing a billion years into the past in real time.

Just imagine. During the times of World War 1, the things we take for granted today would have seemed like science fiction. In fairly quick time our body of knowledge has transformed. The environmental movement began with Apollo 8, the crew took a picture of Earth rising over the moon – and that changed all of our perspectives.

On a space mission, 99% of our time is focused on work. There are jobs to be done. Every once in a while, though, you stop and see this view that you can’t imagine until you’ve seen it. That’s the juxtaposition between the sublime and the mundane that comes with space. I remember being on a spacewalk – I was busy plugging in cables and whilst waiting on a crewmate, I had a few seconds to hold-on to the ISS, turn around, and see a view that humans were not meant to see. It was like I was hearing from God. I could see the sunrise from one part of my peripheral vision to another. It was amazing. But then, I had to get back to work.

Q: Did your time in space influence your views on God?

[Col. Terry Virts]: I was a Christian before I went to space, and I still am. Going to space didn’t change my view on faith, but it did give me some interesting perspectives that I didn’t expect.

As part of our mission, I did a whole lot of science experiments on myself. I did ultrasounds on my eyes and heart. I did a lot of scans and imaging on my body alongside the work we did with fish, mice and rodents. We did a lot of research in biology. I also spent a lot of time taking pictures of the galaxy, the universe and our planet.

I came away from space flight realising that I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.

Life is so amazing. My son is a chemical engineer – I was asking him how many molecules are in a cell. Even the simplest ones have a few million and the most complex can have a few trillion. In order for the simplest organisms to form, millions of cells have to randomly align in a perfect way and those organisms are infinitesimally less complex than even our own eye and the processes in our body – and those processes are infinitesimally less complex than emotions and consciousness.

I know there’s a scientific explanation for everything, but in my mind – somebody has to get things going. The watch I’m wearing would never just randomly create itself any more than a piece of metal would spontaneously become a water bottle. When you look at the universe and the forces of nature – science has to explain how it all works and changes- but to my mind, there just has to be a creator.

Q: Did spaceflight influence your views on extra-terrestrial life?

[Col. Terry Virts]: I recently had Chris Mellon on my podcast. He’s the former under-secretary of defence for the United States – a very serious official here. He’s been involved with a lot of the UAP phenomena such as tic-tac’s and other flying objects. He blew me away. I didn’t realise how many people have been seeing these things. I’m not saying they’re aliens – I’m saying they don’t make sense… and this isn’t UFO hunters trying to explain phenomena, but the US government!

My view is this. There are so many planets out there, life must exist elsewhere – why would it just be on Earth? It’s funny – but in one of the recent Alien movies, Prometheus, the premise is set around whether or not there is a God, and how life started on Earth. In the movie, even though there wasn’t a God, there was a creator – the alien species who came to Earth to seed life here. I do think somebody would have to start life, even on distant planets but I’m not sure we will detect it anytime soon. The nearest star is 40 light years away. Most of the signals our planet emits are drowned out by our own sun, making us invisible. However, you then have serious guys like Chris Mellon talking about some really weird things they’re seeing – so who knows!

Q:  How did you reconcile the near constant risk of a space mission?

[Col. Terry Virts]: On Expedition 43, we went through a month where the caution light and warnings went off all the time and we had quite a serious emergency. I remember being ready for no more warnings. I wasn’t getting freaked-out or frazzled, but I’d had enough of the alarm going off every day.

I took a yellow sticky and put it on the command post in the lab. We created different categories of problems, alerts, cautions, warnings, emergencies and funny smells. We made little tick marks for where these things were happening – just to inject some humour, what else do you do?

The space station is pretty spacious, but the shuttle is cramped – it’s like having 6 people in a small, flat kitchen. Arriving on ISS, I picked a spot on the European module (Columbus) to sleep. I brought my sleeping bag down there and clipped it to the ceiling, covered my eyes and tried to sleep. However, the module creaked and popped all night long as the temperature changed with sunrise and sunset. It struck me that if we got hit by a meteorite, there was nothing we could do – it would go straight through the station and we’d all die. We had to just not think about it. If you think about it, you’ll go nuts – especially because there’s nothing you can do.

In space, you can only worry about the things you can control – not the constant low-level simmering danger that you might explode and die. If you worried about that, even a two-week flight would be hell, never mind a 200 day one.

Q: Do you think we will become a multi-planetary species?

[Col. Terry Virts]: Guys like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are spending their personal fortunes on making us a multi-planetary species. The problem however is that nowhere in the solar system is suitable for us to live without suits and spaceships. We could become multi-planetary to the extent that we have a base on Mars, but we could never walk around there. There’s an idea about terraforming Mars where you melt the icecaps to create an oxygen atmosphere- but Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field, so the solar winds would strip the atmosphere away. Even if we took a thousand years, with repeated nuclear bombs to the icecaps of mars to melt them away, the atmosphere would never last.

We have to remember – there’s no Planet B, we have to protect Earth.

Maybe eventually we’ll make star ships, but that isn’t happening for a thousand years. We need to figure out how to live here sustainably for the long term.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Col. Terry Virts]: The most important legacy I have is my kids. Being a father is the most important thing I’ve done.

Thinking differently about legacy though… I always had different jobs in the air force, and I always wanted to leave things better than I found them. So, here’s my concern for Earth… the climate is one thing, and we need to fix it… but the bigger problem in my mind is politics. There’s a cliché that astronauts don’t see borders- but we do. The India-Pakistan border is clearly visible from space, as is the North-South Korea border. You can see our politics playing out – you can see the glow of humanity thriving, and the absence of light where it doesn’t. We need to figure out our politics – it really determines the quality of life for all of us. If you have a free-market economy with innovation and a thriving democracy, people’s lives are probably going to be pretty good – if not? They’re probably going to war.

The world seems to be on a march towards authoritarianism and we need to figure out how to change direction. Governments need to realise that their goal should be to make people’s lives better, not to keep themselves in power.  I don’t know how I’m going to fix that, but if I could fix it or impact it, that would be the one area that I’d want to impact.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.