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EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Catching Up With Former NASA Astronaut, Photographer and Nat Geo Author, Terry Virts

Virts, who spent a staggering 200 days on the International Space Station, is coming to Proctors on January 31.

Terry Virts
Astronaut Terry Virts inside the International Space Station. (Terry Virts)

Too scared to shoot into space (I can barely manage to board a flight at Albany International Airport), it’s long been one of my dreams to get to do the next best thing: to meet or speak with an actual astronaut. Ever since I was eight years old and first saw the 1995 movie, Apollo 13, about a real life, near disaster in space for three Apollo astronauts, I’ve admired those who’ve had the courage to ride a fiery rocket into orbit. Really, what eight year old doesn’t dream of space travel and getting to meet astronauts? Except, I’m almost 32 now, but the dream finally came true.

National Geographic‘s touring speaker series National Geographic Live and Proctors are presenting a “View from Above” with Terry Virts on Thursday, January 31. Virts is a celebrated NASA astronaut, having piloted the space shuttle Endeavour, and from November 2014 to June 2015, spent 200 days in space as Commander of the International Space Station (ISS). Not only did Virts stay in space for one of the longest durations in NASA history, but he also recorded his experiences for iMAX, which became part of the 2016 iMAX film, A Beautiful Planet, which is a stunning panorama of the Earth from the perspective of astronauts on the ISS. In 2017, Virts also turned his inspiring images from space into the National Geographic book, View From Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World.

It’s one thing to admire Virts’ marvelous skills with a camera on screen or in print, but to hear him tell his unique stories firsthand is, just like going to space, a rare opportunity. So don’t miss out on January 31 as Virts shares his fascinating tales and breathtaking images from above the Earth’s atmosphere at Proctors. saratoga living recently got to speak with Virts about his upcoming show and his tenure on the ISS.

Last year, a Saratoga Springs company, Death Wish Coffee, sent some of its caffeinated product to the ISS. Any interest in trying a cup while you’re nearby Saratoga?
You know, I heard about that. In fact, someone just sent me an email that one of my old space academy classmates, Donald Petit, did an interview on Death Wish Coffee’s podcast [Fueled By Death Cast]. But I didn’t know [Death Wish] was from Saratoga.

You spent 200 consecutive days in space. What are some of the things you did to keep yourself from going stir crazy?
For me, photography was that outlet. I took pictures whenever I had the chance. It was my evening activity once the workday was over with. It was so spectacular, because there was this never-ending sea of amazing content. So I never had cabin fever. I was worried about it, but it was never a problem for me.

What about the other astronauts?
I think a lot of folks are ready to come back to Earth after five or six months. [Laughs] For me, personally, I felt like I could’ve stayed longer. My attitude helped a lot. I thought, “I’m going to enjoy this time in space and really take advantage of it. I’ve got the rest of my life on Earth.”

Talk more about that. So many astronauts have described their time in space as a life-changing, almost spiritual experience.
For me, it took a lot of the black and white out of me, and I see a lot more gray now. I can kind of understand [both sides of an issue]. From up there, you can see the whole planet, where every human you’ve ever known is from. And it makes it harder to get uptight about small things. The daily stressors of life happen, and I’m, like, “Okay, I’ve been to space. I’ve seen the Earth. This may be a stressful email, but it’s not the end of the world.”

And you were up there during a pretty stressful time politically, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Yet you worked with Russian Cosmonauts nearly every day.
Yeah, when I was commander of the ISS, we worked together really well. My favorite part of being in space was actually hanging out with the Russians. They were just good guys, and we still stay in touch to this day. The Space Station is about a lot of things: science, the engineering and technical achievements of other countries, but I think the most important achievement is really the international cooperation. That’s the most profound and longest lasting potential benefit to humanity.

How did you get to work with iMAX while you were on the ISS?
I love flying and being a pilot, but I love doing creative stuff, too. Honestly, I didn’t plan on doing iMAX. One day I opened my schedule, and it said go to iMAX screening. I showed up, and they said I was going to help film a movie, and I was ecstatic. It ended up being the best thing I did in space. Of all the work I did, I think that’s the most important, because so many people are going to see that iMAX film. It’s going to impact people way more than the obscure experiments we were doing.

I imagine that experience helped you land your current deal with National Geographic.
About a year after I landed, I decided it was time to leave NASA and go on to my next phase in life. Writing a book was one of the first things I wanted to do. And it’s interesting, but the lady who was managing my schedule at the time was working with Buzz Aldrin, and Buzz had written for National Geographic, so she put me in touch with the Editor In Chief. When I called him, he told me that he’d literally just left a meeting where they had decided they were going to do a space photography book. So there’s an old fighter pilot expression that goes, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

You’ve been very lucky…and very busy! What have you got coming up next?
I’ve got another book that I’ve started to work on, and hopefully a TV show that we’re pitching in LA right now. The show doesn’t have a name yet, but the basic premise is that I’ve seen the whole planet from space, and now I’m going to visit the places that I saw. [It’ll be like] Anthony Bourdain, but with a space angle. It’s still in the works, and we’ll know more, hopefully, very soon.

Jeff Dingler
Jeff Dingler

Jeff Dingler is saratoga living's Senior Writer. He's a graduate of Skidmore College and a professional musician.

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