Terry Virts: Vantage Point from Space

Spaceflight is his passion but captivating us with a bigger picture of our blue planet is his latest mission.

Looking down from the stars, it’s as if time stands still, and a catharsis, riddled with emotion and awareness envelopes the brain. Looking down at Earth — the pristine, fragile oasis, the island we’ve been gifted, and that has protected humanity from the harshness of space — awe and sadness comes over one, and then a hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction that we need to protect it as well. Only a handful of humans have experienced this “overview effect.” Terry Virts is one of those rare individuals.

A former Colonel in the United States Air Force, Virts is also a NASA veteran of two spaceflights aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2010 and the International Space Station in 2014-2015. In addition, he is an accomplished author, speaker, and thought leader.

Virts spent seven months in space which included piloting the space shuttle, commanding the International Space Station, three spacewalks, and performing scientific experiments. All this was achieved in collaboration with multiple international partners. He flew with and led Russian Space Agency cosmonauts during some of the most tense post-Cold War periods. Virts, however, is known for another major achievement, his photography which is literally “out of this world.”

A Picture is Beyond Words

Astronaut Terry Virts takes photographs through the windows of the Cupola.

An avid photographer, Virts took more than 319,000 photographs while orbiting Earth — the most taken during any space mission. His stunning images are showcased in the IMAX film A Beautiful Planet which he helped film and appears in.

“It’s just beautiful. You feel like you’re seeing the heavens and the earth. Your home planet is over there, and you’re over here. It’s a surreal, emotional experience, and the little silly things you watch on the news every night just doesn’t matter. They are just not a big deal. So, from that point of view, your perspective changes,” he says. Virts still holds the record for the most pictures ever taken in space.

Before Becoming a Rocketman

Even though he considers Columbia, Maryland to be his home, Virts was born in Baltimore in 1967. He graduated from Oakland Mills High School and subsequently earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from the United States Air Force Academy. He continued learning and in 1997 earned a Masters of Aeronautical Science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

After earning his wings at Williams Air force Base in Arizona in 1989, he pursued his career piloting various military aircraft. In 1997, Virts was selected for Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. After graduation, he was an experimental test pilot at the F-16 Combined Test Force. Over 3,000 flight hours in more than 40 different aircraft later, he was selected as a pilot by NASA in July 2000 and reported for training the following month.

“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,” says Virts.

Training to Be an Astronaut

There is a lot of training involved when it comes to becoming an astronaut. Every day brought something new. An astronaut must master a multitude of disciplines. The training encompassed everything from science to medicine and learning the language of one of our former archenemies, now our partners in space, the Russians. Once out of the shuttle, he had to practice maintaining the International Space Station, learn to repair it, and master walking outside of it.

“The initial training was fun. It was something different every day. As a pilot I had to learn how to fly the space shuttle, for launch and landing, and rendezvous, and all the piloting tasks,” he says.

Virts’ first trip into space came in 2010, when he spent two weeks as the pilot of Endeavor, one of the world’s most famous space shuttles. “The first space flight is amazing. First of all, walking out to the space shuttle is an amazing experience,” he says. “I’ve never been so proud of being an American because I know Americans have built that … It was the most amazing flying machine ever built, and I got to fly it as pilot. It was awesome.”

Leaving Planet Earth

Four years later, on November 23, 2014, Virts found himself on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. On a Russian vessel, the Soyuz TMA-15M, along with Italian Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, and Russian Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, he left planet Earth and six hours later, docked at the International Space Station.

Only something as imperative and glorious as space can unite two countries that have decades of apprehension and a history of tension. “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,” says Virts.

On the International Space Station he was a flight engineer initially and then its commander. This endeavor included three spacewalks totaling almost 20 hours in a mission that lasted an entire 200 days.

“There’s nothing like spacewalking. It’s a very unique experience,” he says. “You’re in this very heavy, very stiff spacesuit that’s basically a space ship. It has its own oxygen and carbon dioxide systems, a cooling system, communication, has a jet pack. It’s a small spaceship. Except for there’s a one-millimeter-thin plastic glass, and on the other side of that is space. You almost felt like you can see or hear God out there. It’s really an awesome experience.”

In the midst of an extraordinary life, Virts has managed to publish a lot of his experiences for the world to witness the wonders he knew so well in his book View From Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World published by National Geographic. An oversized coffee table book, it contains photographs of Earth, as well as photos of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the International Space Station, and much more. Explanatory notes about Virts’ experiences as an astronaut are included throughout.

“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.”

Virts is often called upon for speaking engagements around the world where he shares his perspective on innovation, global wealth, and wellbeing. His presentations not only display magnificent visuals of his photographic work but also give us a better understanding of life on our blue planet and the importance of being good stewards of the environment.

You can enjoy viewing more of Virts’ stunning photography and learn more about him at terryvirts.com.