Retired NASA astronaut Terry Virts on board the ISS
Photo Credit: NASA

Worldwide alumnus Terry Virts discusses space travel after seven months on the ISS

Embry-Riddle graduates are known for going far in the world, but not many have gone farther than Col. Terry Virts.

Virts, who earned his Master of Aeronautical Science degree from the Worldwide Campus in 1997, came back to Earth this past June after spending 200 days aboard the International Space Station –  four months, of which, were spent as commander.

Expedition 42/43 launched on a Russian Soyuz in December 2014. During his seven months on board, Virts took part in tasks such as routine maintenance and science experiments. He also had time to enjoy two of his passions – photography and social media with his posts seen daily by more than 200,000 of his followers and shared with many more.

Now that he’s back on Earth, Virts took some time to talk about his life in orbit.

You were on board the International Space Station for approximately 200 days. What’s it like that first week back?

The first week back is interesting. Overall, I was shocked at how quickly I recovered. The first day I was very dizzy. Physically, my body was doing very well but I was pretty dizzy and I wanted to always walk next to someone. I never fell or anything, but I didn’t want to push it. Second day was a bit better. Recovery time was pretty quick but it was a few days, maybe a week, before that dizziness went away.

What I thought was going to be worse was the mental toll. Will I miss it? Will it be weird? But really it wasn’t like that at all. It was like when I was back, I was back. I think years of training and going to Italy, Japan, Germany, Russia, all that travel. I think my brain is used to going somewhere, coming back home and adapting.

You always hear that travel provides people with a better perspective of the world and you’ve certainly traveled. How has space flight changed yours?

It really does change your perception of the Earth. I think the cool thing is you get to know the Earth by colors.

Most astronauts agree that North Africa is really astonishing. It looks like Mars from above. I often thought looking down on the Sahara that this is exactly the view the guys who eventually go to Mars will have. The whole cabin just fills with this orangish, reddish color. Russia is white in the winter time. You can tell the oceans by their shades. The color blue and the shades you see from space are not like anything I’ve ever seen on Earth. They’re just purer. Between those shades and the cloud formations, you can tell what oceans you’re over. You just get to know the Earth in ways you never expected.

While on board the ISS, you took a few spacewalks. Can you take us through that process?

The first thing is preparation. Frankly, it’s really stressful leading up to it and a lot of work. It was my first spacewalk so it was a bit of the unknown. It was like having a final exam in a way. The actual spacewalk itself is a very long and tiring thing. You’re wearing this big 400-pound spacesuit that’s basically a self-contained spaceship. You start a few hours in advance getting the suit on.  You have to pre-breathe oxygen for several hours. It’s very physically intense. But when I went outside for the first time, it was elation. I’ve been a fighter pilot. I’ve been a shuttle pilot. I’ve done lots of things in my life. But spacewalking, there’s nothing I’ve ever done like it.

It’s funny, we do our training in a pool. When you’re training, to get from the airlock to the next place you need to get to, you can sort of reach out the full length and grab hold and it’s a sort of a shortcut. So my very first spacewalk, me and Butch Wilmore sort of look each other over to make sure we’re good. I started to reach over as far as I could, and I immediately pulled my hand back. I took the long way. It wasn’t fear but respect. I’m out in space, and I don’t want to let go.

You’re a big fan of photography and that was on display in your use of social media while in orbit. What was it like to take photos in space?

The time I was actually able to spend focusing on photography - which is one of my passions - the thing that struck me the most was sunrise and sunset. It’s just shocking how beautiful it is with nothing blocking your view except this thin plastic visor. Hollywood makes some amazing graphics, but to see it with your own eyes is really amazing. And then it’s back to work.

You garnered a pretty big following on Twitter while you were up there. What was it like to be able to interact with people like that?

That was one of the highlights of the mission for me. I really wanted to connect with people on Earth, and it’s the best way to share the experience of space flight. A lot of the tweets we would send out, there would just be millions and millions of impressions. But I really wanted to share the fact that we have humans in space and have had them there for 15 years now aboard the space station. And more than that, space travel is really awesome. But now that I’m back on Earth, though, I’m finding it hard to find something to tweet.

NASA has made some big announcements lately between the findings on Pluto and Mars. What are your thoughts on where space exploration is going?

Some of my favorite missions at NASA are those unmanned missions. We’re getting some amazing information back. But it’s the human aspect that I’m pretty biased toward. The way I see it, you can go online and look at pictures of Hawaii and see all these photos of the beach and the palm trees and all that. But, man, I’d rather go there.

So then you’re signing up to go to Mars?

I’d love to go to Mars, but there are a lot of challenges. A lot that has to happen before a human goes to Mars. But it’s clearly the goal. If the moon was the 20th century, Mars is the 21st. 

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