Retired NASA Commander of the International Space Station, Terry Virts, will be the second of three speakers in the Fox Cities P.A.C.’s newly launched Viewpoint Speaker Series. Terry has had an impressive career and many once-in-a-lifetime experiences. He even set the Round-the-World record for global circumnavigation going over the Noth and South poles and directed the documentary, “One More Orbit” that tells the story of setting the groundbreaking record. I chatted with Terry Virts about his experiences in space, with NASA and the United States Air Force and what audiences can expect for his upcoming speaker event, How to Astronaut with Terry Virts on January 23, 2024.
Many children dream of exploring the vastness of space and observing the astonishing beauty of the universe as an astronaut. However, for retired NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force pilot, Terry Virts, this childhood dream became a reality. “I was hooked at a very young age,” Terry admitted. “I grew up with posters of space, rockets and galaxies on my wall. Even then, I loved astronomy, learning about it in magazines. My parents even got me a telescope when I was in sixth grade.” Terry especially enjoyed learning about NASA’s Voyager program, following the updates about the two satellites capturing Jupiter, Saturn and the other outer planets for years.
When Terry was 13, he was encouraged to read the book written by Tom Wolfe, “The Right Stuff,” following the stories of fighter pilots, test pilots and an astronaut. This began his interest in the United States Air Force and paved a way for his career. Terry went on to become a F-16 pilot and a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force for more than a decade before changing trajectory and turning his sights toward NASA.
“Being admitted into NASA is a very lengthy process,” Terry commented. “It’s a very long, drawn-out application process, followed by a multi-step system which includes checking references and long interviews that last a week. The total process took about a year to complete. There are thousands of applications to sort through and not many people get in.” In total, Terry spent about a year and a half training, using that time to reaffirm his desire to become an astronaut. Once his training was complete, Terry was an official astronaut! However, becoming an astronaut was only part of the journey as he then had to get on a list to wait for an available flight. At the time of joining NASA in the early 2000s, it was common to be waitlisted for a flight for eight to twelve years. “It was a long wait, but so worth it. Today, it may only take two or three years to get a flight.”
On Terry’s first flight into space, he was the pilot on a CS-130. “The first thing I saw in space during daylight was the East Coast and the I-95 lighting it up, which was cool. A few minutes later, we were passing the sunrise over the North Atlantic. Before the sun comes up, you can see this blue band in the atmosphere as you fly into the sunrise. I was mesmerized by how beautiful it was. I had never seen that shade of blue before.”
On expedition 43, about four or five years into his career, Terry became the Commander of the International Space Station. During his time as commander, Terry conducted several space walks. “On one flight, we did 3 space walks in a week,” Terry commented. “The main job was laying cables to power data for the SpaceX capsules, so when they dock, they have electricity and can pass data to the space station. My secondary job was applying grease for a couple of hours to a giant 50-foot robotic arm.”
During his time in space, Terry had a cultural bonding experience with his fellow astronauts. “One of the best parts of my mission was spending time with the Russian cosmonauts and Italian astronauts, training with them and learning their language,” Terry shared. “Samantha, one of the Italian astronauts, was the most skilled language-person I have ever known. And when I was commander, I made it a point to go down and have dinner with the Russians on their segment every night when I could.” Terry appreciated being able to form relationships that were about sharing culture and finding common ground despite cultural differences and political unrest.
“My favorite part of being in space was obviously the view.” As a photographer, Terry appreciated the stunning views he was able to capture. “Someone had to count up the images I took, and they told me that I had taken the most pictures ever in space,” Terry commented. “People always ask me if I would go back, and I tell them I would if I could make a movie. Seeing the Aurora Borealis is rare and it was amazing. I also enjoyed seeing the galaxy at night with so many stars, different deserts, the Bahamas and the coloration of the planet.”
A year after his last spaceflight, Terry realized that after working for the government for 30 years, it was time to do something different. “I wanted to write a book and ironically, National Geographic decided that they wanted to do another book about space because it had been 20 years since the last one,” Terry said. Terry was able to write the book in just two weeks. Many of the stunning events and visuals that Terry captured in space are now featured in the National Geographic book, “View from Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World.” Since he got to “know the Earth by color,” Terry named one of the chapters “Colors,” paying homage to the way he was able to see the world from above. He also wrote “How to Astronaut,” a light read of 51 short essays on different aspects of space life. Taking audiences “out of this world” at the upcoming Viewpoint Speaker Series event on January 23, Terry will share his experiences in space with audiences through “How to Astronaut” and stunning photographs and videos.
Though Terry is retired, he keeps himself very busy with passion projects. He speaks at various venues including board rooms, schools and performing arts centers and even consults. He is also working on a handful of film and TV projects. Terry is also very passionate about politics and is looking to help improve the democratic system of the U.S. Along with researching, Terry works with an organization called No Labels that runs as a moderate political group. “I’m trying to avoid having a job, but I think I work more now than I ever did before,” Terry admitted.
The Viewpoint Speaker Series is a Changemakers Production.
About the Changemaker Speaker Series
Presented nationwide, The Changemaker Speaker Series is a highly curated touring program of thought leaders, celebrated explorers, award-winning journalists, photographers and filmmakers, innovators, and artists who are actively engaged in creating a better tomorrow. One by one, they are striving to solve big problems, inspire environmental stewardship, document the world around us, and bridge the distance between us. Join these changemakers in dynamic presentations that combine expert storytelling with riveting footage and imagery, prompting thought-provoking conversations about our world. Learn more at www.changemakerspeakerseries.com.
Written by Philomena Dorobek, Brand Storyteller
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center