Astronaut Terry Virts talks space photography, science fiction and growing up in Columbia
By Patti Restivo
Oct 03, 2017 at 7:00 AM
Terry Virts may be retired from NASA, but the son of Columbia hasn't stopped sharing his passion for space travel. During more than 200 days living aboard the International Space Station, Virts and other astronauts shot footage for the 2016 IMAX movie "A Beautiful Planet." Meanwhile, Virts was taking thousands of aerial images that would go on to be published in his new photography book, "View From Above," which includes stories of his life in space.
Here, the Space Shuttle pilot, who now lives in Houston, shares how childhood influences shaped his destiny as an astronaut, his claims to fame on Twitter and the small screen, highlights from his time in space and what he's been up to since retiring in August.
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How did living in Columbia shape your interest in becoming an astronaut?
I had a really amazing scholastic experience. The schools were the best. I had teachers that got me really excited for math and science but also for other things, like English and especially French. Madame Paula Micka, my French teacher, just connected with me on Facebook.
Believe it or not, my "French Connection" — the French I learned at Hammond Middle and Oakland Mills High Schools — was a major factor contributing to why I am where I am today. Because of that, I did an exchange at the French air force academy for a semester. Having international experience was really important in the early years of the space station program and set me apart on my resume.
A photo of your Vulcan salute from space went viral on Twitter after the death of "Star Trek" actor Leonard Nimoy. Growing up, did science fiction inspire your interest in space travel?
It's funny, I was just in Norway and I've been all around the world, and people were like, "Oh, you're the person who did the Vulcan salute for Leonard Nimoy."
"Star Trek" reruns were fun to watch when I was a kid. But when the "Star Trek" movies came out, I got very interested. And then the three "Star Wars" movies came out — waiting for the next "Star Wars" movie and going to see it time after time was just the coolest thing ever.
And I liked to read Arthur Clarke ["Rendezvous with Rama" is a favorite] and Isaac Asimov.
Would you have liked to fly the Shuttle Enterprise for NASA, if it had made it into space?
Oh, yeah. Good grief, flying any shuttle as a test pilot was a dream, especially the first shuttle. Enterprise would have been great because it was all about the approach and landing. Of course, I was in elementary school then.
Ironically, I appeared on TV in the last episode of "Star Trek: Enterprise" in 2005 with my friend, Mike Fincke, who knew Scott Bakula. They put us in TV show flight suits, and I got a few seconds of fame.
During Hurricane Harvey, I was doing a promotional video for friends diving with great white sharks in Mexico; we filmed this in 360. One of the people on the cruise was Rod Roddenberry, Gene Roddenberry's son. He told me about the new television series "Star Trek: Discovery."
What are you most proud of in your career with NASA?
Two years ago during really tough relations between the U.S. and Russia, I commanded the space station on Expedition 43. I was in space with three cosmonauts. We had a great relationship and got a lot of stuff done, including working through a very critical situation in the Russian segment.
I'm not a "sing Kumbaya" kind of guy; I'm very realistic. But of all the technical things I did, being able to lead during that trying time, I think, was a good example for the world of how things can be.
And I got to film "A Beautiful Planet" in space, which was the highlight of my mission. This will be the first time you'll get to see night footage in IMAX format.
What exciting things have you been up to since you retired from NASA?
One of the first things I wanted to do was write a book, but not an astronaut memoir. That story's been told time and again.
I love photography and I wanted to do a photography book. I wrote the text for "View From Above" without a ghostwriter. Kate Carroll, my main photo editor, went through a couple hundred thousand pictures. And National Geographic editors Michelle Cassidy and Susan Hitchcock did a nice job of letting me keep my writing style.
I hope readers will take away just how awesome and exciting and cool space flight is. The pictures are just gorgeous of the earth as well as space.
The stories I wrote — of how to adapt to space, what it's like to go out on a space walk, what it's like to have an emergency in space, what it's like to be there with Russians with all these things going on — are good, interesting stories that people haven't heard.
Then, in August, I was in Oregon co-hosting Nat Geo's live coverage of the total solar eclipse with Cara Santa Maria. A few minutes before totality, it got really cold and quiet. When the sun disappeared, it was so dark you could see planets and the sun's atmosphere. There was a reddish-orange light in a horseshoe shape on the side of the sun. It was a solar prominence — basically a nuclear explosion bigger than Earth — getting bent around by the sun's magnetic field, and you could see it with your naked eye. It was an amazing experience.
What's next for you?
"View From Above" just came out, and I'm doing a Nat Geo live speaking tour. I'll be at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in D.C. Oct. 7 for book signings.
My next big trip will be to Antarctica in December as a guest speaker on an eight-day expedition. We're going to the ice in arctic gear, to a penguin colony and to the actual South Pole.
And I'm working with my manager to pitch a fun, "Top Gear" type of TV show combining pictures of places on Earth that I took from space with travel to meet the people and explore their cultures, food, language and environmental challenges.
If you go
Terry Virts will stop in Baltimore during his "View From Above" book tour Sunday at 2 p.m. He'll give a brief talk and sign copies of the book at Barnes & Noble's Power Plant location, 601 E. Pratt St. Free. Call 410-385-1709 or visit stores.barnesandnoble.com/store/2881.
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Virts will speak from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at National Geographic's Gilbert H. Grosvenor Auditorium, 1145 17th St. NW. $25. Go to nationalgeographic.org.