Share an Astronaut's Extraordinary Views of Earth From Space

What does Earth look like? How do you become an astronaut? And how did a gorilla costume arrive in the International Space Station?

By Jonathan Manning
Published 1 Dec 2017, 18:45 GMT
Aboard the International Space Station astronauts have spectacular views of the Earth. NASA Astronaut Terry Virts, ...
Aboard the International Space Station astronauts have spectacular views of the Earth. NASA Astronaut Terry Virts, commander of Expedition 43, tweeted this comment with this image, "Every #sunset is different, this one was blue".
Photograph by Terry Virts

Terry Virts is one of only four astronauts ever to have piloted a Space Shuttle, flown on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, performed space walks and commanded the International Space Station. He spent 200 days in space on board the ISS. Here he talks about gazing down on Earth, international cooperation, drawing up a bucket list… and a gorilla suit for Halloween!

Expedition 43 commander and NASA astronaut Terry Virts is seen here inside the station's Cupola module. The Cupola is designed for the observation of operations outside the ISS such as robotic activities, the approach of vehicles, and spacewalks. It also provides spectacular views of Earth and celestial objects for use in astronaut observation experiments.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

Where does NASA advertise for new astronauts?

I had been a fighter pilot and as part of that I had gone to Test Pilot School (TPS), but I had always wanted to be an astronaut. While I was a student at TPS, NASA announced that it was going to have a class of 2000 so I responded. Everybody at TPS wanted to be an astronaut, so it wasn’t like a random off-the-street thing. We had planned our careers that way.

Terry Virts (left) flying the F-16 in 1998 with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon and a fellow “22nd Fighter Squadron D Flight Commander” (40 years earlier).
Photograph by Terry Virts

What qualities does an astronaut require?

One of the last things I did at NASA was to go through 18,000 applications for astronaut class. One of the criteria we were looking for was operational experience. Have you done something in life that puts you at risk? It’s important to be smart, but it’s also important to be able to fly an airplane or climb a mountain or SCUBA dive – something that is actually operational.

We don’t want thrill seekers. When you have to live with someone in space you don’t want the basejumper or wingsuit flier guy, you want someone who is willing to take risks, but takes them smartly and calculated and survives. We are not looking for adrenaline junkies.

How much flying is actually involved in space travel?

You really could fly the Space Shuttle for the entire mission, from launch to landing, with the exception of the first 90 seconds. Once we got into orbit I did lots of manual manoeuvring during our rendez-vous with the station. Then when you come back to Earth, you could fly it the entire way, although normally we only flew it from supersonic Mach 1 down to landing.

Terry Virts takes off in the Soyuz.
Photograph by NASA, Aubrey Gemignani

Is the Soyuz similar?

With the Soyuz you can control the docking manually, and when you come back into the atmosphere in the capsule you can have a little bit of control, but it’s nothing like the Shuttle. The Shuttle was an airplane.

Did you plan to take 300,000 images during your ISS mission?

I didn’t intend to take that many, but I’m a photographer by nature so I knew I’d be taking a lot. I also knew I’d be filming the movie, Beautiful Planet, and part of that was going to be still images.

Where are the photos now?

They are in the NASA system and the public can access most of them. I also have them on my own hard drives at home, so they’re accessible to me.

Which image have you chosen as your screensaver?

My phone desktop is a sunrise at Baikonur – it’s at the launch facility in Kazakhstan with my Soyuz rolling out.

Taking photos from the space station’s Cupola was one of Terry Virts's favourite things to do in space.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA
Terry Virts selected this as one of his absolute favourite images taken in space— the aurora borealis over the U.K. The northern lights were always in the distance while the southern lights were usually much closer to his orbit.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

Have you framed any of the images you took from space?

Yes, I have an aurora, a sunrise, I have one of Typhoon Maysak. I also have a series of eclipse pictures before during and after an eclipse – but they were taken from Oregon!

Do you see the same views every day from the ISS?

There is a repeating pattern where you see exactly the same thing every few days. You fly over the same place on Earth during a day pass and a night pass. The station’s orbit is fixed in space and Earth rotates underneath it. So if you cross the equator going northbound over Cairo, the next time you cross the equator going northbound, Cairo will be 1,500 miles to the east and you’ll be over West African desert at that point.

The Earth constantly moves to the east and the ISS stays in a fixed orbit. It’s due to this weird thing called nodal regression. The Earth is a little bit plumper in the mid-section than it is at the top and bottom, like many humans! It’s more like a pear than a sphere, and it’s actually fatter in the southern hemisphere than the northern. That means gravity pulls the orbit it to the west by about five degrees a day, and that’s called nodal regression. That’s why you don’t have a perfectly repeating pattern, and why it takes a couple of days to get back to the same spot.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts, commander of Expedition 43 on board the International Space Station, tweeted this beautiful image of our planet with this simple comment "#Earth".
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

Which views became your favourites?

There is a big difference between day and night. During the day you can get views of the places you are looking for. At night you see city lights, which from my point of view became not really a view of population, but of wealth. I hadn’t thought of that until I flew in space.

The auroras at night are amazing; seeing sunrises and sunsets, moonrises and moonsets are especially amazing. In the day you see oceans and mountains and coral reefs and sand dunes.

At twilight you can’t see places – everything is just so fuzzy with low contrast and soft lighting and shadows. You can’t tell what you’re looking at, but it’s really pretty. It’s more like a Monet painting and daylight would be a realist painting.

Cotton ball clouds dot farm fields in central Brazil.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

How clearly can you see Earth from space?

There’s an 800mm telescope with a doubler on it on the space station, so you can zoom in and really see detail. I’m a baseball fan and I tried to take photos of all the Major League baseball stadiums in the United States. I almost got them all. But the pictures I preferred were more of the wide angle, see the whole earth, type of thing.

Did you see places from space that you now want to visit on foot?

Hundreds of places. One of the problems you get from flying in space is that your bucket list gets way too long.

So have you ticked any of them off your bucket list yet?

Yes. I had never been to Australia before – the outback is beautiful, huge and red. I’m going to Antarctica this weekend, which is definitely a bucket list thing. I saw an eclipse from space, but had never seen once from Earth so I went to a Mexican island, called Guadalupe, to watch an eclipse.

From the International Space Station, Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Terry W. Virts took this photograph of the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Gulf Coast at sunset. The space station and its crew orbit Earth from an altitude of 220 miles, travelling at a speed of approximately 17,500 miles per hour. Because the station completes each trip around the globe in about 92 minutes, the crew experiences 16 sunrises and sunsets each day.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

If everyone could see Earth from space, how would it change human behaviours?

I think it would be a lot better. As an author and speaker I try to talk about the perspective I got from space. For me, hopefully I get less stressed about things. From a cosmic perspective the trials and tribulations of life on Earth don’t seem that important. The other aspect is just getting along with one another – I was in space with an Italian and a crew of Russians and things had been not that great between the West, America and Russia, but in space we got along really well. We just worked together to survive because space is a place that will kill you instantly if you let it. It was a great example of how people can get along despite these political differences on Earth. Of all the achievements of the space station, technical and engineering and science, I think the international cooperation is most important.

Terry Virts (left) with cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (centre) and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

What languages do you speak up there?

English and Russian. We probably spoke more English but I tried to speak Russian with the cosmonauts. And my crewmate Samantha is great at any language that can be spoken - the best person I have ever met when it comes to languages, so she and I spoke French together.

What goes through your mind prior to a space walk?

Don’t screw it up! Space walks are really complicated operations. If you could sit inside, have the procedures in front of you and check the boxes off it wouldn’t be too bad. But when you are outside you don’t have the procedure with you, you don’t have to have the whole thing memorised, you can’t, but you need to understand the big picture of what you are doing for the entire space walk. Some space walks have just a couple of repetitive tasks, but most are several unrelated tasks with lots of different steps. For me, there was lots of preparation that went into it – I really wanted to have as much memorised as I could to be more efficient, because the time outside is very precious and really dangerous, so you want to minimise that time. And the only way you can do that is to know what you’re doing and get moving onto the next step as fast as you again.

U.S. astronaut Terry Virts tweeted this image after completing a series of spacewalks with his partner astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore to prepare the International Space Station for upcoming U.S. commercial spacecraft currently in development. Virts tweeted: "Mission Accomplished - 3 #spacewalks, 800' of cable, 4 antennas, 3 laser reflectors, 1 greased robotic arm."
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA
NASA astronaut Terry Virts takes a drink of his very first milkshake on board the International Space Station.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

What luxuries can you take up to space?

They give us a 1.5kg allowance for personal stuff that we can bring on the Soyuz. I took jewellery for family and friends – you take a picture of it with Earth in the background, and then you have a ‘space flown’ item. I flew a watch for my dad and my son.

And on every cargo ship they try to send up a care package, so every month or two you should get a care package with stuff like chocolates, letters from home and pictures. During my mission we lost three cargo ships in eight months. My crewmate got a gorilla suit from his brother for Halloween, which was funny.

Terry Virts checks the remote control Canadarm 2, which is used to grapple arriving spacecraft and move them to their docking ports.
Photograph by Terry Virts, NASA

How easy was it to retire from life as an astronaut?

After my first flight I wanted to go back. It was only a two-week mission and I was a Shuttle pilot and I wanted to do it again. My second flight was a lot longer, it took a couple of years of training, which I loved – in some ways the training was the best part for me – and I was in space for 200 days. I did space walks and I was commander and we had visiting cargo ships, I filmed an iMax movie, so when I got down I felt like I had done everything and checked every box. It would have been fun to fly again, I enjoyed it, but I was in my late 40s and I could wait for five to seven years to do the same thing again, or I could move to the next phase of life, actively take charge of what is happening, and so that is what I did.

View From Above, an Astronaut Photographs the World, by Commander Terry Virts is available now.

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