Colonel Terry W. Virts: Stuck on Earth
Writing articles for Throomers is always a privilege because the subjects are among the most interesting and accomplished people on the planet.
Recently presented with a list of potential subjects, I jumped at the chance to write about Colonel Terry W. Virts for two reasons. First, in my opinion, there is no more uniquely courageous, even heroic, career choice than the life of an astronaut. Second, the most famous person I’ve ever been lucky enough to call my friend was an astronaut.
In the early 1980’s, I moved into a neighborhood in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and soon learned a celebrity lived a few houses away. Over the next several years, I became friends with Al Worden, pilot of Endeavour, the command-module for the Apollo 15 mission in 1971, and his lovely wife, Jill. Although there was an air of specialness about Al, a calming otherworldliness, he proved to be a genuinely grounded and humble man. He and Jill were warm and welcoming neighbors to all comers in our community.On March 18, 2020, Al passed away in Sugar Land, Texas, from a stroke at the age of 88. Jill had predeceased him by about six years. In retrospect, I don’t think Al ever fully returned from his Apollo mission. Life on earth was never the same – how could it be? Maybe it’s like when an actor becomes extraordinarily famous playing the ‘role of a lifetime,’ and he or she can never again shake the preeminent character and return to the relative normalcy of their previous life?
In any case, I suspect Al is more familiar with his new surroundings than we mere mortals will be when our time comes. After all, he had already visited the neighborhood once.
In the following article, I hope to do Terry Virts’s inspiring story justice while honoring the life and passing of my friend, Al Worden.
Colonel Terry W. Virts: Stuck on Earth
Colonel Terry W. Virts is most certainly the only human being we’ll ever know who’s well acquainted with the experience of being ‘stuck in space.’ As detailed in our original article, his exceptional performance as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force earned him the invitation to train at NASA, which led to his two missions in space: piloting the space shuttle Endeavour in 2010 and commanding the International Space Station in 2014 into 2015.
His NASA experiences have provided Virts with all the material he’ll ever need for a flourishing second career, especially with the largest archive of space photography known to man. It is his second mission in 2014 though, when faulty equipment substantially delayed his return to earth, that he believes has relevance to the worrisome circumstances of the day. Having been ‘stuck in space,’ he feels well equipped to advise on how best to deal with being ‘stuck on earth.’ More on that later.
Colonel Virts has joined most of the world in sequestering at home this past month. While he reports that he is healthy, he’s had a recent brush with the sinister pandemic.
“A close friend of mine had the virus, along with her parents,” he said. “They’ve been holed up for a couple of weeks now.” He described the symptoms as “a light cold to start, but then they crashed and it got really bad, including coughing up blood.” Since then, he said “it’s been an up and down thing, but the mom is a nurse, so they’ve been able to ride it out at home with no hospitalizations.”
He describes COVID-19 as “the perfect storm of everything you don’t want in a virus,” noting that it’s highly contagious and has a long period of incubation where the carrier is asymptomatic and capable of spreading the disease.“If it were like Ebola where those infected get very ill and die immediately,” he says, “it would be awful, of course, but better because people wouldn’t be transmitting it. This is really a super virus because it kills people, but not too many, allowing it to spread and spread.”
Managing through the Crisis
Virts is a small business owner now ensnared in uncertainty like millions of other Americans. In fact, he owns multiple small businesses and ventures.
“To honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission,” he said, “I’ve recently published a reproduction of its flight path. It’s a really beautiful work – Italian leather, 23 karat gold, encased in a clamshell box – produced by one of the world’s best bookmakers located near the White House in D.C.”
“Unfortunately,” he says, “two organizations had committed to purchasing the books but have recently backed away due to new economic realities.” This limited collector edition book (500 copies) can be viewed at the interactive website [apolloflightplan.com]
Beyond that, Virts has been a busy business consultant and public speaker, until about two months ago, that is. “My day-to-day business is public speaking,” he says, “and that’s at zero right now.”
Accepting these temporary setbacks with a military man’s resilience, Colonel Virts is never one to lower his gear and stop pressing ahead. He has several other projects underway relating to being ‘stuck in space,’ including YouTube videos and a short book being adapted into a video series.
“People are dying,” he says, “and many millions have lost their jobs. I’m trying to do some things that help people out emotionally.”
For more information on the impressive breadth of his projects, please visit his website at https://terryvirts.com/
Alarming World Trends
Virts’s mind is as expansive as his travels. Thus, he has intriguing thoughts about how our country and the world have been doing, both pre-crisis and currently, along with a gravely serious warning about potential post-crisis outcomes.
“There are two primary issues here,” he begins, “the health aspects of COVID-19 and the economic and geopolitical ramifications.” He believes these may be the most complicated issues we’ve ever faced as a nation and world.
“There are much larger, more important issues at hand than can be solved by the simple ideological solutions preferred by politicians,” he says. “This is about what our future will look like and we need the ‘A-team’ in charge.”
Virts believes the world has been changing in the past five to ten years, and not for the better. “We’ve been heading in the direction of nationalism and authoritarianism, and other really disturbing trends,” he says. “It’s already felt like the 1928 to 1935 period, and now with COVID-19 and a possible global depression, suddenly it’s 1938.” He fears that all the pre-conditions are in place towards a 1940s ‘world at war’ scenario and warns that “leaders really need to be careful to not go down that path. Without naming names, all the biggest, most powerful and important countries are involved. If a global economic crisis develops, leaders will be pre-conditioned to behave in an authoritarian way.”
He notes that the world will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II later this year (September 2nd). “We need to make sure this global health disaster is under control by then,” he said, recognizing we don’t know if that’s possible given the virus’s persistent spread, so we don’t know where the economy is going to end up.
“There’s a lot of misery now in America,” he says, “but in some other countries it’s that x 10. Economic misery has bad outcomes. Not to be a downer but the threat is real. We need to make sure we don’t go down that path.”
A Big Fork in the Road
Colonel Virts followed up his sounding of the alarm with this brighter point:
“This is the first time in history that every person on earth has a common enemy – the virus. That’s a unifying force, and if national leaders have instincts or tendencies of working with other leaders, building coalitions, it’s a historic opportunity to bring the world together. This is a really big fork in the road in human history.”
From Virts’s most unique vantage point imaginable, he came to understand the profound connectedness of his home, ‘spaceship earth,’ and all its inhabitants.
“We have a real decision path looming,” he says. “Will it be ‘Let’s make our country great again,’ and ‘Keep the foreigners out,’ or will it be something more unifying? The decisions our leaders make are long lasting. Canada, for example, will be around forever, well beyond this administration. Winning one transaction may feel good emotionally, but there are generational impacts to these decisions. When we make enemies, they will remember it a long, long time.”
An example intimate to Colonel Virts is the plight of the Kurds in Northern Iraq, having spent years of his life helping to protect them from the ravages of Saddam Hussein.“For a decade or two,” he says, “they fought wars on our behalf. They were loyal allies. Now, the Turks are bombing them and we’re nowhere to be found. Everyone in the world is going to remember that.”
Advice for Coping with Isolation
The ideas Colonel Virts passed along for coping while we’re ‘stuck at home’ in isolation are informed by his time ‘stuck in space.’ They begin with simple daily practices such as staying busy, setting an alarm, making a daily schedule, dressing for a day of productivity, etc. Here’s a further sampling:
“Get stuff done around the house. If you’re not a professional working from home, start by cleaning out and organizing your closets, then the drawers, then the garage; clean out your files, paper and digital, work on your photo albums, etc. All the stuff you’ve been promising to do but postponing forever.”
“Do something artistic. When I was stuck in space, my thing was photography and it’s been very rewarding. I’ve worked on the IMAX movie called A Beautiful Planet, and some of my photos are in my books too. Learn to paint, draw or play a musical instrument. Write stories about your experiences. Write the book you’ve wanted to for years. This is your opportunity – take it.”
“You are locked down in your home with family members for an extended period. Like always, you need some social contact and you need time alone. We learned this at the space station. It’s important to have our own personal space to retreat to during the day.”
“The most important thing, which drives all the other ideas, is your attitude. There is no benefit to being angry, stressed out, sad, or whatever other defeating emotion may overtake you. It’s counterproductive. When I was stuck in space, trust me, those emotions were readily available. I’d look back at our planet for a spiritual perspective and think: ‘this will be over soon, and I’ll be better for this experience.’ COVID will come and go, we’ll get through this, and most of us will be better than ever.”
You can find more tips for coping during isolation from Colonel Virts on YouTube and in a short book he’ll be releasing anytime now.
A Less Cluttered Life
“Importantly,” he says, “during the shutdown we’re all learning that we can live with less. So, the frivolous things can be easily eliminated.”
During his NASA training, he did survival exercises in the Alaska wilderness. “We were in kayaks and it rained for ten straight days,” he says, “I guess to make it as miserable as possible. We got by on very little. I’ve also lived in Europe a bunch and they just don’t have all the stuff we have.”
The lesson he took away from these experiences is most of us just don’t need all the stuff that we have in America. He believes it would be a very good and healthy thing if we tamp down our materialistic nature. “There’s something liberating about eliminating the clutter,” he says. “Watching sports 24/7 or surrounding ourselves with a lot of unnecessary things can drain our energy. We can have a healthier emotional life without all the stuff.”
He acknowledges that it would hurt the consumption number in our GDP, but says “too late, that’s already done.”
A Bright Horizon
“When we come out of this,” Virts says, “there’s going to be an infinite demand for essential goods and services. There should be a boom of some kind this fall and into next year.”
He also thinks that people will get back to congregating in public places, such as sporting events, theaters and restaurants, but that will take longer. “People are social creatures, isolation doesn’t work long-term,” he says. “We’ll get back to socializing as soon as we feel safe.”
He cautions though that some businesses will never return to their previous status, such as the cruise lines. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to get on a boat ever again,” he says. “Even the Navy is having trouble with that.”He points out that every year we contend with colds, common flus and other illnesses, and it’s never stopped socialization. People who don’t feel well, generally, have stayed at home, which we now call ‘social distancing.’
“COVID-19 is a unique virus,” he says, “so we all feel uncertainty. We should wash our hands anyway, and people shouldn’t be out in public coughing and sneezing, so all those things we’ll hopefully get better at.”
Virts believes a new diligence toward improved hygiene can serve to reduce the number of traditional illnesses we get annually.Colonel Terry W. Virts is a young, accomplished and deeply thoughtful man. As we listened to him speak, we wondered if he might pursue a future in politics, following a similar flight path as former astronaut and senator, the late John Glenn. Our world sure could use more problem-solvers at the high level of these extraordinary gentlemen.
Whichever path he chooses, we’re proud to have met Colonel Virts and we’ll be closely following his future endeavors.