Maybe Terry Virts never got to the moon, but he's been a lot closer than the rest of us, and he took many pictures.
He thought he might get the opportunity, as late as 2006, but as it turned out NASA's last manned moon landing was in December of 1972, just a few days after the Baltimore native turned 5. Still, he has spent over seven months in space, much of it at the International Space Station working with Russian cosmonauts in 2014 and 2015. Virts, now retired, will talk about his unearthly experiences Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Proctors as part of the National Geographic Live Series. Virts' program is titled "View From Above."
Virts grew up in Columbia, Maryland wanting to be an astronaut, and headed to the U.S. Air Force Academy where he majored in mathematics. He was selected for Test Pilot School in 1997 and joined NASA in 2000. In 2014, he and Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian Anton Shkaplerov took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, and six hours later successfully docked at the International Space Station. He has also had three EVAs (extravehicular activities) or spacewalks, and on Feb. 28, 2015 he tweeted from space the image of a Vulcan hand salute, the one Trekkies will remember was often used by Mr. Spock with the accompanying words, "live long and prosper."
Virts retired from NASA in August of 2016 and continues to live in Houston. He now does a variety of public speaking, including the National Geographic Live series, and is also working on a book and a television project.
Q: When did you want to become an astronaut?
A: From my earliest days, I always wanted to be an astronaut. I loved space, I loved airplanes and fighter jets. All that kind of stuff covered the walls of my childhood bedroom.
Q: You were 32 when you joined NASA. Is that young to become an astronaut or old?
A: There are pilots, which I was, and there are mission specialists. I was the youngest pilot for a while, but there were younger mission specialists. My path to becoming an astronaut was to go to the Air Force Academy and Test Pilot School. It's a very narrow and unique career path from the pilot side of things. There are astronauts that are doctors and engineers and scientists, but to be a pilot you have to follow the path that I did.
Q: How did the Challenger (Jan. 28, 1986) and Columbia (Feb. 1, 2003) disasters effect you?
A: I was 18 and a freshman at the Air Force Academy for the Challenger explosion, and for the Columbia I was an astronaut serving as a family escort. They were both horrible, but for the Columbia disaster I was there with the family on the runway waiting for them to land. All those kind of incidents are hard to deal with, but with the Columbia it was real personal. I was friends with the spouses and the children, and to this day I'm still friends with them. That was very hard.
Q: What was it like working with the Russians at the International Space Station.
A: Working on the space station with the Russians was probably the highlight of my career. I really enjoyed those guys, and I feel like we're still friends. To this day I'm still texting with them back and forth. We were right in the middle of things with Russia during my training and my time at the space station. We were in the middle of Crimea, the Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. That's one of the most important stories I like to tell. It was pretty bad here on Earth, but the space station was an example of how people can and should work together.
Q: What is the experience of being in space and looking back at Earth like?
A: It's an experience that is so profound you can't describe it with words. Words don't do it justice, and I don't think we've come up with the adjective yet to describe it. Ninety-nine percent of the time you're busy doing chores and working, but that other one percent is just amazing. During that time you feel like you're hearing from God. Earth is a beautiful planet.
Q: What is your favorite space movie?
A: I like all of them, but "The Right Stuff" (1983) was really the one that motivated me to become an astronaut. "Apollo 13" (1995) was another great movie, and I loved "Interstellar" (2014). It's an interesting movie from a physics point of view, and it's a story about a mother and a daughter and I really liked that. But I also loved "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." I'm a big fan of all of them.
Q: How disappointing was it to you not to get to the moon?
A: I never really imagined that it was possible. Then in 2006, the Bush administration came out with a program called Constellation, and all of a sudden it was a possibility. Air and Space Magazine came out with an article, "Our Next Americans on the Moon," and I was one of them. I was shocked. I thought it might happen. I had some hope. But then the program was cancelled under Obama, and we've sort of been wandering in the wilderness about manned moon landings ever since. It's going to be a while before anyone does it again. It would have been very nice to go to the moon, but I got to fly in space and that was an amazing experience.
Q: Are you pleased with what NASA is doing now?
A: Well, I think the robotic program they're working on is amazing and going very well. We are doing amazing things. We just landed a probe on Mars that will tell us what that planet is made of, and we've also landed a probe, New Horizons, on an asteroid that is six light hours (around 6.6 billion kilometers) away. So we are doing amazing things. But the bureaucratic inertia is huge and powerful, and so hard to overcome. The best way to move forward is through public and private partnerships. We're stuck in a rut when it comes to the human side of things in space, so we have to get the private sector involved in the innovation and partner them with the public sector. That's the best way to move ahead.
Q: You've blogged about a few political issues, particularly the environment. Is it important to you to share your opinion?
A: When you work for NASA all you're allowed to say is, "I totally support NASA's stance on this issue." Now that I'm retired I can say a few things. But I think I am radically in the middle politically, and I make my decisions on fact-based evidence. Ultimately, our political decisions determine our quality of life here on Earth. I think the environment is very important. No, we're not all going to die this year, but there are some very real problems that need to be addressed. I'll talk about pollution and the environment, and how the Earth is a beautiful planet and how we have to make sure we do a better job of taking care of it.
Q: What is your presentation going to be like at Proctors on Saturday night?
A: It's a live presentation, and I'll be talking about my experience in space flight and how I became an astronaut. I'll also share some of the images I took from space, which is always a big highlight of the show. But at the end of the day it's more about life on Earth more than it is about space. I'll talk about some of the lessons I learned while I was in space, and how those lessons can help us live a better life here on Earth.
'View from Above'
WHAT: A National Geographic Live Series program with former astronaut Terry Virts
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State. St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
HOW MUCH: $40-$20
MORE INFO: (518) 346-6204, or visit www.proctors.org