From Jets to Space Stations

Astronaut and Air Force Col Terry Virts shares his experience as a NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station (ISS) with Peterson Air Force Base personnel and families Feb. 24.

Astronaut and Air Force Col Terry Virts shares his experience as a NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station (ISS) with Peterson Air Force Base personnel and families Feb. 24.

Astronaut and Air Force Col Terry Virts shares his experience as a NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station (ISS) with Peterson Air Force Base personnel and families Feb. 24.

Astronaut and Air Force Col Terry Virts shares his experience as a NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station (ISS) with Peterson Air Force Base personnel and families Feb. 24.

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Astronaut and Air Force Colonel Terry Virts spoke with Air Force Space Command Public Affairs on a recent visit to Peterson Air Force Base February 24.

Virts most recently served as the commander of Expedition 43 on the International Space Station. Prior to becoming an astronaut, Virts attended the United States Air Force Academy and began his Air Force career as an F-16 pilot. After spending almost 10 years as an operational F-16 pilot, Virts decided to apply to become a test pilot. Over the course of his career, he has logged over 4,300 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft. Soon after becoming a test pilot, Virts applied to, and was accepted, into NASA's astronaut program where he logged 212 days in space on two flights. Virts returned to Earth June 11, 2015.

Below are excerpts from the interview.  The full interview can be seen at:  

When did you know you wanted to be an astronaut?

I think I grew up loving space, flying, and airplanes. The first book that I ever read was about Apollo. I remember in kindergarten reading this little kids book about the astronauts going to the moon, so it's something that I grew up with. As a kid, my bedroom wall was filled with pictures of the original F-16. That red, white, and blue YF-16 and planets and stars and so it's just something that I've always been interested in.

When did you realize that being an astronaut might actually be an attainable goal?

So, I always thought I'd like to be an astronaut, but that's kind of a crazy dream. I mean, nobody actually gets to do that so I decided that things like having a technical education and being a pilot would be good things. I ended up attending the Air Force Academy and majoring in applied math. I kind of went through my career checking boxes that I assumed would be important for being an astronaut, not ever thinking it would actually happen to me, but I figured I'd at least check the box and keep the options open. Then there came a point after flying F-16s operationally after 3 or 4 bases where I was either going to try and pursue an operational career and go on that path or go to test pilot school, which was really the box to check to be an astronaut. So, when I was at Spangdahlem in Germany there was one day when I said, "I'm gonna go for it. I'm going to try and be a test pilot and try and be an astronaut." So my whole life I kept the doors open and then there was that moment in Germany at Spangdahlem AB when I decided that it was what I wanted to do.

What does the astronaut application process look like?

It's very long and a lot of paperwork. Now, it's mostly electronic paperwork. We just had a call for a new astronaut class of 2017 and I am actually going to be on the Air Force board sorting through the Air Force applicants next month. So, there's the initial phase of filling out lots and lots of forms online. Then we go through an initial vetting process to see who is qualified and then we decide who is highly qualified. Then we contact references and after we go through all of these steps we will call down about 100 people for interviews. That has turned into a two week process. One week is mostly medical interviews, but there are a few testing activities they do with robotics, space walking, aptitude tests and personal interviews to get to know the people. And then that group gets whittled down and after that second week we make the final call. The last class was 8 people, so it's not a lot of people that get picked and this class of 2017 had over 18,000 applicants. It's by far the biggest pool of applicants we've ever had.

Do you think there is a reason for this year's huge spike in applications to the astronaut program?

I think people are always interested in space. I go around the world and talk to folks all around the planet and people think space is cool. It is cool! So I think the interest in space is there. To be honest, because of social media and NASA's use of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other outlets, I think a lot more people were aware of this class and I think that is at least part of why the spike was so high in the number of people who applied.

What does a typical day in space look like?

It's usually not like that movie Gravity, thankfully. But the great thing about being an astronaut is there is no typical day. Of course, every day has some stuff in common. You wake up, we have a meeting with the ground where we call Houston and Munich and Moscow, the different control centers around the world, and talk to them about what's going on for the day. Then the work gets started, and part of that work every day includes exercise. So we have what's basically a weight-lifting machine, a treadmill, and a bike as our three exercise machines. Then, beyond that, some days we do maintenance. Stuff breaks that you have to fix. Some days we do upgrades.  New equipment comes out and we replace the old with the new. Most days we do some kind of science experiment. Some days cargo ships fly to the station and so we have to grab them and attach them to the station, unload the cargo, and then fill up the ships with the old stuff we had on the station. Some days we do space walks. I had a chance to do 3 space walks while I was there. So there is a lot of different stuff. Every day is a little bit different.

You mentioned the movie, Gravity. Did you receive notifications from AFSPC with regard to space debris, and if so, what does your response/maneuver look like when you do?

Yes, we get a notification probably every few weeks. Our Chinese friends exploded a satellite a few years ago and the debris from that is still right in the space station's orbit so one of the many reasons I love Air Force Space Command is because you guys can track that debris and let us know when it is a threat. During my mission, we had several times where we had to maneuver and most of the time the ground will call us and say, "Hey, we are tracking this piece of debris, the time of closest approach is in 8 hours." Most of the time it gets cleared and it's not a problem, but every once in a while it goes from green to yellow to red and we either have to maneuver if we can, or if it's a pop-up piece of debris that we just catch, what we will do is we will run down to the Soyuz, which is our escape vehicle, close the hatches, and wait, and hopefully we don't hear any noises or bangs.  And then once it's passed we open the hatches up and go back in the station. So, thankfully, we have had no significant debris hit the station. We've had lots of little debris hit the station. During my space walks I could see lots of little hits and chips. It's kind of like having a car here in Colorado Springs. The thunderstorm comes along and hail hits it.  Little dents and dings like that you can see from maybe pieces of paint from a satellite booster or dust coming in from who knows where in the solar system, but the large objects, Space Command has been able to track and warn us about.

Can you describe the different roles you played on space shuttle and the space station?

My two space missions were first on the space shuttle as a pilot and that mission was like a TDY to space. It was two weeks. It was an assembly flight and it was extremely busy. We landed and our whole mission for two weeks was blocked into five minute chunks.  So every five minutes was scheduled for two weeks.  When I landed from that I was completely exhausted and it was an amazing experience. We were the first, and only, shuttle that brought up two modules in the same flight. We installed these modules using a robotic arm and did space walks to get all the wiring connectors plugged in. That was my space shuttle flight. A lot of the space shuttle flight was about the launch, landing, and rendezvous and actually flying the vehicle. My station flight was a 200 day flight. At the time, it was the second longest American flight ever. The launch and landing on a Soyuz out of Kazakhstan's Baikonur was important and a big part of our training, but that was only six hours of my six month-plus mission, so the vast majority of that was more like a PCS rather than a TDY. We lived in space. On the shuttle, I still had a learning curve on how to float, how to maneuver, how to do stuff. On the space station, after a couple of months I was as good as I was ever going to get. Just moving is a skill that takes time to learn how to do so that was a different experience.

What was the biggest challenge of adjusting to life in space?

I think just pacing yourself. They used to say that shuttle flights were sprints and space station flights were marathons, but the reality is, the station flight is just a really long sprint because it is pretty busy too. It's not at the same pace, but it's a busy time, so you have to be able to take care of yourself. Just like on Earth, you've gotta take care of yourself before you can help others. It's the same thing in space. You have to be able to manage your time. Three vehicles actually exploded during my mission. A SpaceX, an Orbital Signus, and a Russian Progress all had failures in an eight month timeframe. So, when we were there the Progress blew up, which shares the same boosters as our Soyus, so we went through this time where we weren't sure if there was a common failure and we delayed the follow-on crew so we got extended by a month.  As anybody knows, if you are on a deployment, as long as you know what the last day is that makes it doable and once the last day starts changing that can be hard. Our crew handled it great. Everybody had a great attitude and stuff, but I guess that was a challenge to have to deal with; the unexpected extension of a deployment is basically what we had to do.

What was the best space meal?

Beef brisket. The brownies were good, because we hardly had any brownies. We had this big bag of desserts and there would be like one or two brownies in there. There's a funny picture of me and Scott Kelly, who comes back next week. He came to space when I was there for Expedition 43, so I started out his yearlong mission and that's ending next week.  But, we both like brownies and there's a funny picture where we cut it in half and are each holding half of a brownie because that's all we had in our week-and-a-half supply of desserts. But the beef brisket was pretty good.

I am sure there were many noteworthy and memorable moments from your time in space, but is there one particular moment that stands out to you as being particularly awe-inspiring?

There are so many. It's hard to pick one, but I can remember one time I was in the Cupola, which is one of the modules I got to install on my shuttle flight. It's a seven window bay. It's like one of those science fiction movies where guys are looking out into space. That's what it is. It's amazing. We were going over the southern part of the earth and the northern lights, the northern aurora, are really beautiful but they are in the distance.  Just the way the magnetic pole and the station orbit is the northern lights are always in the distance. And the way the southern pole, the south magnetic pole is, we fly right over it, and this one time we went down there we were flying through an aurora, so there was this green dancing radiation surrounding us and, you know, I remember going "Hey guys, look at this!" and everybody came down and was like, "I can't believe it!"  So, that was pretty cool. There were a few moments like that.  It was not Earthly... It was not of this world.

How are you able to communicate with friends and family from space?

There is an IP phone, like Vonage, where you use a computer to talk and we have that available much of the day; whenever there's satellite coverage, so it's not continuous, but we have that often available. It's kind of the world's best telephone because you can call anywhere in the world for free and nobody can call you. And then NASA set up a video teleconference, similar to FaceTime or Skype, once a week. 

How do you think your career in the Air Force prepared you to make the transition to NASA, the astronaut program, and eventually commanding the ISS?

My career in the Air Force is what made me being an astronaut possible. The leadership experience I had -- had I not had the Air Force, I never would have been a leader. And the flying experience is so important. Aviation is the best analog to space flight that we have here on Earth. You have to stay ahead of the jet and you have to think ahead. When you are flying it's a real environment, it's not a simulator, and if you make a wrong decision you might die. That sense of urgency is very important for space flight. The technical things that I learned were very important. Being a fighter pilot, but also being a test pilot, was also important, because in the test pilot community you deal with civilians, contractors and you expand beyond just other Air Force people and that's certainly the way NASA is. There are all kinds of civilians and international partners at NASA, so the ability to work with different types of folks from all over the world was another very important thing. I did an exchange with the French Air Force Academy and was assigned overseas several times and, of course, we were the International Space Station, so working in other languages and with other cultures is really important for what NASA does. That was another one of many things that my Air Force career helped me out with.

What was the one thing you missed the most in space?

The smells and sounds of Earth. One day, I had been there a long time, and Misha Kornienko , Scott's crewmate on the one-year mission, a Russian cosmonaut, was working out and I floated by and I heard this bird chirping, so I stopped and looked in there and was like "Where is there a bird?" He had nature sounds on a laptop. He was just playing birds. The Russian psychologist had sent him all these MP3 files and it was so cool to hear that. It had been 72 degrees and dry for 100 days and it's a very sterile environment. It's very pleasant, but it's sterile, so they sent some rain music. I spent a couple months at night, we had headsets, where I would put them on and listen to the sound of rain. Just like on Earth, it's nice to lie down and listen to rain on the roof.  One weekend, we actually put it on all the laptops across the station so wherever you went it was raining. It was kind of cool, and then by the end of the weekend, we were like alright, that's enough rain, and turned all the rain of off because, just like on Earth,  a little bit is nice and then after a few days that's enough.

What was the first thing you did when you got back to earth?

I went car shopping with my son who had turned 16 while I was in space. The day I landed I got on a NASA jet and flew back to Houston and then the next day my son was like, "Alright Dad, it's time." So we went out. He drove because I was not in driving condition for a few days. So yeah, I went and looked at cars with him.

Do you have one piece of advice for anyone who might have aspirations of becoming an astronaut?

So, I get asked that all the time. "What do I need to do to become an astronaut?" And there's a thought that I need to be a test pilot, I need to scuba dive, and I need to get a pilot's license. Those are all great things if you love them. More importantly though, is that you do what you love because everybody has gifts, everybody has been made with talents and abilities. So if you do what you love and what you are good at you will do well at it. If you just do something because you think you need to do it, you probably aren't going to get A+'s or DG (Distinguished Graduate), or whatever it is you are trying to do. So, the advice I give is do what you love, check the boxes, and don't let anybody tell you no. When I applied I was the youngest pilot in NASA probably for the last 20 years or longer. Everybody told me, "You aren't going to get picked. There's a lot smarter guys, there's a lot better looking guys, there's a lot of guys with a lot more experience than you." And that was true. I applied when I was still in test pilot school. But I was like, "You're probably right, but I'm going to fill out an application and I'll let NASA tell me no." And I got lucky, and I got picked. So, if you want to do something, fill out your application and send it. If you want to go to Harvard, apply. The worst they are gonna do is tell you no, and be ready for no, because you very well may hear it a bunch of times, but you might not, so don't limit yourself.