Terry Virts Interview: IMAX Space Filmmaker

Colonel Terry Virts was born on December 1, 1967 in Baltimore, Maryland. He joined the NASA astronaut corps in the year 2000 and logged 213 days in space on two separate missions. From space, he filmed the IMAX documentary A Beautiful Planet. As well, during his space missions, he conducted hundreds of experiments and performed several spacewalks. Virts gained a fresh perspective on Earth through both the windows of the International Space Station (ISS) and the glass on his helmet. He had the privilege to ride on both the Space Shuttle and the venerable Soyuz spaceships.

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Official NASA portrait of astronaut Terry Virts. Credit: NASA

Early Life

Neil Armstrong’s Influence

During the interview,  I asked Virts who inspired him most. In no time he answered with, “I’d say Neil Armstrong.” Armstrong, as  most readers know, worked at NASA first as a test pilot in the late 1950s on the X-15. Then, famously as an astronaut in the 1960s. He eventually became the first human to walk on the lunar surface with the triumphant words “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” “That’s what inspired me to become an astronaut,” Virts explained.

neil armstrong nasa moon helmet spacesuit moonwalk apollo first man american flag
Official NASA portrait of Neil Armstrong, the first person to step foot on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Virts’ description of Armstrong agrees with the common ones. “He was quiet, and he kept to himself.… Didn’t speak much, but when he spoke people listened to him.” When he was a kid, he read a book about the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong. Reading that book as a kid sent him on a lifelong quest to be an astronaut and explorer. Virts’ eventually achieved those aims and then some.

Lifelong Photographer

Along with aspiring to be an astronaut, Virts has a lifelong passion for photography that started when he was a child. “My parents got me a Konica SLR camera. I just kinda taught myself how to take pictures and focus and all that stuff.” Reflecting on his first photography experience, he said, “I think it’s just like genetics in me that I love taking pictures.” His photographic prowess proved useful in his astronaut career when he helped shoot the documentary A Beautiful Planet.

Here are some of Virts’ photos from the ISS:

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The Northern Lights near the United Kingdom (middle center) and Ireland (left center) taken by Terry Virts from the Cupola module on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

 

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Florida (right center), Cuba (left center), and other Caribbean Islands taken by Terry Virts from the Cupola module.  Credit: NASA

The Cupola module on the ISS, with its multiple-window-vista view, is popular with astronauts and Virts wasn’t an exception. When asked about his time management while on the ISS, he described that he worked all day—every day—for 200 days straight. Even with his “free time” he enjoyed taking photos of the Earth, which he could eventually send back to his family.

The Cupola module with all window covers open. Those covers protect the glass from debris, and we manually control them by a knob on the inside. Credit: NASA

 

Education and Pre-NASA Career

His astronaut journey began when he entered the United States Air Force Academy in 1985. After getting his pilot’s wings in 1989, he served as an F-16 fighter pilot. In 1997, Virts graduated from test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base. He applied to be an astronaut in the year 2000. “… all these steps, it was like a year-and-a-half-long process-it took forever!” When the moment finally came for him, Virts said it was the best day of his life and a longtime dream finally came true. “But other than having kids, that was about the happiest you could get.”

First Spaceflight

The Launch

On his first space mission, STS-130, Virts was the space shuttle Endeavour’s pilot. The first countdown was proceeding smoothly until T-9:00 minutes. The launch director scrubbed the countdown because of unsatisfactory weather at the Kennedy Space Center’s Return To Launch Site (RTLS) landing zone. Virts commented on this moment, “It was maddening. I was like, come on, guys! It was just a problem with the weather deck [height of the cloud cover over the landing site] but you know NASA has their roles and so I went ahead and just rolled with it and went out and did it again the next day.” Conditions were better the next day, and the shuttle launched on a 13-day mission on February 8, 2010.

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Space Shuttle Endeavour on the pad just at main engine ignition for STS-130. Its payload comprised ISS parts such as the Unity and Cupola modules. This was Terry Virts’ first spaceflight. Credit: NASA

Experiencing Weightlessness

Virts remembers the first view he had of Earth when he flew straight into the sunrise. “I’ll remember that forever.” According to him, learning how to float and navigate in microgravity is “a steep learning curve for sure.” It took him quite a while to adapt to these new conditions. A massive headache didn’t help either. “But then once I did [adapt], it was like a light switch.” Virts’ headache eventually went away, and he learned how to thrive in his unfamiliar environment. Each astronaut has an unique experience with acclimating to microgravity, but there are many other challenges we didn’t have time to discuss.

Terry Virts weightless inside the ISS wearing dark pants and a dark short-sleeve shirt. He's seen perfectly centred on all axis.
Terry Virts in the Destiny module floating in the microgravity environment that is the ISS. Credit: NASA

The Mission

The primary aim of STS-130 was to install the final American module to the ISS, Tranquility. Also known as Node 3, it contains vital environmental control systems and some exercise equipment. It also contains the Cupola module with its six windows that aid in Canadarm control. As a pilot, Terry’s job was to assist the commander in this case George Zamka, and sometimes manage the payload. Even as a pilot, Virts was required to help with the installation of Node 3 and the Cupola.

Second Spaceflight

On his second spaceflight Virts’ flew on a Russian spacecraft, the venerable Soyuz. It launches on top of a Soyuz FG rocket. Soyuz launch operations occur at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. Launch Complex 1, known as Gagarin’s Start, was the main Soyuz launch pad for cosmonaut crews until 2020. Virts’ second mission launched  towards the ISS on November 23, 2014. Soyuz TMA-15M rendezvoused with the station in just six hours when the spacecraft docked on a port on the Russian side of the station. This began his 200-day journey in microgravity on Expedition 42/43.

Expedition 42: Virts Spacewalks

One of the biggest moments of any astronaut’s career is to perform a spacewalk or extravehicular activity (EVA). On February 21, 2015 he performed his first of three EVAs on Expedition 42. Some astronauts have said they experience vertigo after seeing everything in a panorama-type view. That didn’t happen to him.  “Luckily for me, when I first stepped out, the sun had barely risen, and it was still night on the surface of the Earth below. So the ground wasn’t visible and I didn’t have any sensation of falling or vertigo.”

During this six-hour EVA, he had to route and rig hundreds of meters of power cables to the station’s starboard (right) side. One point that Virts stressed was how confusing it was. At first, he wasn’t sure if he was in the right position followed shortly by becoming disoriented. Luckily, Mission Control in Houston is in constant communication with the astronauts conducting the EVA. “After a few words with ground control, I verified that I was in the right spot.”

During Virts and Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore’s spacewalks, they laid the groundwork for the station to accept Commercial Crew vehicles. They re-routed cables and attached vehicle communication antennas on the American ports. Their work prepared the ISS for the attachment of the International Docking Adapter (IDA) at docking ports PMA-2 and 3.1  Commercial Crew vehicles use the IDA to dock with the ISS, so their EVAs contributed to next week’s Crew Dragon mission.  During these spacewalks, he spent just over 19 hours outside the ISS.

 

Terry Virts, in white space suit with a blue Earth behind him
Terry Virts on EVA taking a “selfie.” Credit: NASA

Expedition 43: Terry Virts Space Station Commander

Just before Expedition 42 left the station, Wilmore and Virts held an exchange of command ceremony. Virts became the Expedition 43 commander. His role was to oversee the station’s daily functions and have a final say in major decisions. Making tough life or death decisions is just part of the commander’s role. As an example, it might be a decision about whether to evacuate the station in an emergency. Obviously this comes with input from Mission Control. However, the commander being on the station, means he can overrule Mission Control if the situation applies.

Expedition 43 became popular when NASA selected astronaut Scott Kelly to spend a year in space. His mission garnered international attention as he completed the 340 days alongside Russian cosmonaut, Mikhail Kornienko. They began their stay while Virts was still on station. Together, they conducted experiments in the biology field, such as studying the E. Coli virus.

 

Terry Virts and Scott Kelly standing in a non-descript room during training.
Terry Virts with Astronaut Scott Kelly. Credit: NASA

A Motion Picture Cameraman named Virts

Using a motion picture film camera in space might not be as easy as one might assume.

It is definitely (laughs) easier except there is no big tripod. We have these camera brackets, which are great. So for small cameras it’s fine that there is no gravity. But to really stabilize the big Hollywood camera you really need two of those brackets and it’s still not that great.  In A Beautiful Planet, there are still some wobbly scenes that I still cringe at.

Terry Virts

These big IMAX film cameras can sometimes be difficult to handle because of their heavy mass. Even though there is some air resistance inside the station, there is nothing else to stop the camera beside a wall or a human, so after the operator gets it moving, it would take the same amount of force to stop it.

 

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Terry Virts making the Vulcan Salute from Star Trek over actor Leonard Nimoy’s home town near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Nimoy died on February 27, 2015 and this was his tribute. Credit: NASA

Comparing Shuttle and Soyuz

Virts had the rare opportunity to ride in both the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the American Space Shuttle. Each vehicle produced a novel launch experience.

The Space Shuttle

He described the Space Shuttle experience as almost similar to a muscle truck. The sudden acceleration provided by the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) at liftoff vibrated the entire shuttle stack upon ignition until cutoff and separation.2

Diagram of the Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). They are attached to the side of the large orange external fuel tank. Credit: Collect Space

Soyuz

The Russians based the Soyuz rocket on the R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Its name comes from its main original payload, the Soyuz spacecraft. It soars off the pad quickly and inserts the spacecraft into its initial orbit in under ten minutes. According to Virts, the roller coaster ride on Soyuz is more jolting and violent than Shuttle. Reentry into the atmosphere is also unique for each spacecraft.3

Virts Post-NASA Career

Filmmaking

After his space missions, Terry directed a film called One More Orbit. The film showed him and his team breaking the world record for flying around the world while crossing over both poles. He did this journey and film to commemorate Apollo 11 on its 50th anniversary in 2019.

Author

Besides directing One More Orbit, Virts also wrote a book which contained immense detail about both of his space missions. In View From Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World which he published with the help of National Geographic. The nearly 300-page work, houses images that Terry himself took of Earth while he was on station and describes some of his fantastic experiences.

COVID-19 Pandemic

At the time of this interview, in March 2020, North America was near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the main talking points during the interview was Virts’ change in perspective regarding the Earth during his time in space. The global COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing as I write this article.

Virts described the current situation when he said, “And like this is the first time in human history when the world has a common enemy and that’s the virus. And like all Americans and Chinese and Russians and French and Italians, we all have a common enemy and this is a unique opportunity that’s not gonna happen again, and I think we need to see that.”

Our ability to capitalize on the fact that we have a common enemy is one of the most remarkable products of this epidemic. This crisis is an opportunity to work together as an entire world. The ISS, already, is an example of international cooperation with a common purpose. Expedition 62, at the time, was the current ISS mission, crewed by Commander Oleg Skripochka, Flight Engineer Andrew Morgan, and Flight Engineer Jessica Meir. Because they had not been on solid ground since the outbreak of COVID-19, they were completely quarantined and isolated from the virus and the rest of the world. Virts felt a similar feeling of isolation, even though there wasn’t an ongoing global crisis.

 

Conclusion

Colonel Terry Virts, a test pilot, astronaut, author, filmmaker, and speaker continues to educate the public about his career in the military and NASA. He began his photography career at a young age with a camera that came as a gift from his parents. As he grew older, he could take his interest in photography out of this world while sending back incredible images. As he did this, he rode in two spacecraft with contrasting abilities. Virts’ life is not over. He continues to educate hundreds of thousands across all platforms about his career and will never stop inspiring people of all ages to pursue their dreams.


Footnotes

1 The Pressurized Mating Adapter is a spacecraft adapter that converts the Common Berthing Mechanism on the US Segment of the station to a docking port that spacecraft can attach to.

2 Returning from space, Shuttle uses its flat blunt bottom with delta wings to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. These blunt surfaces help to induce drag on the shuttle to slow it down from its orbital velocity of 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph) to it’s landing velocity of 354 km/h (220 mph). This is a drastic change in velocity. If you want more information on the shuttle landing process exactly, watch this video on How to Land the Space Shuttle… from Space.

3 The Soyuz spacecraft has a smaller capsule shape. It looks more like a capsule with a blunt end that tapers to a smaller one. The Soyuz Decent Module has an ablative heat shield on the bottom to protect the crew when reentering the atmosphere. The flight profile, once in the atmosphere, uses the spacecraft’s natural lift to raise and lower itself to bleed off speed. Crew members have compared this reentry to a very violent roller coaster ride. If there is an issue with the flight control system, an even rougher ballistic descent occurs which puts more G-force loads on the crew.

Unlike most human-rated spacecraft, the Soyuz touches down on land after deploying a parachute followed by a landing rocket fired about 10 metres from the ground. The jolt from the landing rocket adds to the rough touchdown usually in the desert plains of Kazakhstan. Shuttle by comparison is like a military jet landing at high speed, but a relatively soft touchdown compared to Soyuz.

2 comments
  1. Very informative piece Austin.
    I too share a passion for space and photography, just like Mr Virts.
    I have seen the IMAX doc but not the other movie, One More Orbit, so will seek that one out.

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