Baltimore-born Terry Virts has spent a staggering amount of time in space – he clocked 212 continuous days last year. As the commander of the ship, he had quite a few responsibilities – his two and a half year pre-mission training schedule included a crash course in dentistry, spending time in emergency wards to brush up on medical procedures, learning emergency processes and even studying Russian – but he counts the responsibility of cutting his female crewmate’s hair as “by far” the scariest thing he did in space.
An astronaut with NASA since 2000, Terry also had the chance to indulge his childhood love of photography last year on Expedition 43, where, on his ‘lazy’ Sundays, the mission commander managed to take a staggering 319,275 pictures of his experiences during his spare time while in orbit.
But what is life out there really like?
“The most surprising thing was the very first view I had of Earth during the daytime,” Terry tells us. “It was sunrise, there was this blue band over the North Atlantic, over Europe, and I just thought, ‘I’ve never seen that shade of blue before.’ It was amazing. I never expected to see a colour I’d never seen before but that was my first thought. I’m a pilot, I’m not an author – it’s hard to describe something that indescribable.”
Here are some of our favourite life lessons we learnt from Terry:
Never tell yourself ‘no’
Almost every child at some stage flirts with the idea of becoming an astronaut, but for Terry, it was a firm favourite for his future career choice.
“The first book I read was about Apollo, when I was in Kindergarten,” Terry explains. “I just always wanted to do that.”
And while he never thought it was possible, he learnt what needed to be done and took on the challenge anyway.
“I went to the Airforce academy and was an applied math major and got to be a fighter pilot and then a test pilot. It’s a lifelong [process]. You’re learning your whole life.”
When it came time to applying for a position as astronaut at NASA, Terry insists he was neither the smartest nor the most experienced, but he still managed to beat out his colleagues. Why? They didn’t think they would get through – so they didn’t even apply.
“The reason they didn’t get picked was because they told themselves, ‘No’,” he explains of his peers. “Never tell yourself ‘No’.”
Considering the sterility of the space station, it’s not surprising the entire team needed some reminder of the world they left behind. To feel a little more connected to Earth, Terry’s team – which included Russians Anton Shkaplerov and Gennady Padalka, Italian Samantha Cristoforetti and fellow American Scott Kelly – had “Earth sounds” sent up to them. One weekend, the team favoured rain, and, with all the laptops on the station, they played the sound of rain continuously for two days.
As annoying as umbrellas can be, it might be worth remembering how much some people miss the impact of nature on their day-to-day lives.
…And the all small, seemingly menial things
It was only a day after returning to Earth via a drop-off in the desert near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, that Terry was back with his family and taking on everyday Earth tasks.
“My son learnt to drive while I was in orbit,” he told the audience at The School of Life in Sydney on Tuesday. “So he wanted to go car shopping.”
So, after transiting through Houston airport, Terry spent his first day back on Earth shopping for a car with his son, adding that it was “great” to get back to life on Earth.
Don’t waste time worrying
“Right now, there’s this amazing sunrise happening that you can’t even imagine,” Terry says. “There’s been a billion of them that have happened and there’s going to be another billion and you can’t even imagine how many stars are out there and… it’s OK. Our problems don’t matter. Everything’s going to be fine.”