If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What got Terry started dreaming about being an astronaut
- The importance of learning how to learn
- How long it took Terry to get to space
- What the training is like, particularly flying the T-38
- Getting physically fit for space travel
- The physical problems with long-term space travel
- What does a day in the life of an astronaut look like?
- The straight dope on space food
- Sleeping, peeing, and every other weird daily hygiene routine
- The psychological toll of space travel
- The dangerous reality of space walks
- What it’s like coming back to earth
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Right Stuff
- Grow, Adapt, and Reinvent Yourself With Ultralearning
- Learning How to Learn
- Northrop T-38
- Space Radiation
- Omega Skywalker X-33
- Astronaut Ice Cream
- Skydiving From Space: Part I and Part II
- 15 Constellations Every Man Should Know
Connect With Terry
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you grew up in the ’80s like me, there’s a good chance you really wanted to go to space camp and you really wanted to be an astronaut. Probably had a lot of questions about what it was like to live in space, and if those questions were never answered, or if you’ve forgotten the answers, my guest today can tell you everything you ever wanted to know. His name is Colonel Terry Virts, he’s been to space twice. Second time serving as Commander of the International Space Station for 200 days. Terry also helped in the IMAX movie, A Beautiful Planet, and is the author of How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth.
Terry and I begin our conversation with the plan he set in childhood to become an astronaut via going to the Air Force Academy and becoming a pilot. We talk about how long it took him to make it to space once he joined NASA, the training he underwent for years which required being a skill-acquiring polymath, and how aspects of the training, which include flying jets and wilderness survival courses, didn’t always directly correlate to his job as an astronaut, but were still essential in being adept at it.
We also discuss the physical fitness training Terry did both before his missions and after leaving the Earth and whether he suffered any long-term health issues from being in space for so long. From there we get into what a typical day is like when you’re floating through 16 sunsets, including what space food looks like these days, and whether they’re really eating astronaut ice cream up there, what it’s like to sleep while weightless, and of course, the most burning of questions, how do you go to the bathroom in space? We then discuss the importance of emotional and mental skills when you’re living for months at a time in a space station, and what it was like to leave the station to take a spacewalk and see Earth from above.
And we end our conversation with how Terry physically and psychologically adjusted to returning to Earth, whether he yearns to go back up again, and what he thinks the future of space exploration holds. Consider this show the standard space camp your parents never signed off on, or because you never won Double Dare when the prize was a trip to space camp, I always wanted that. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/astronaut.
Alright, Terry Virts, welcome to the show.
Terry Virts: It is very good to be with you guys.
Brett McKay: So you are an astronaut, an International Space Station Commander, and you got a book out, How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving the Planet Earth. But what I love about this is it was a fun read ’cause it answers all those questions that you had when you were a kid about, what’s it like to work in outer space? What’s it like to be an astronaut? But also, I think the big takeaway that I got from this book as I read it as an adult and how I could apply this, obviously, I probably won’t go to space, who knows, Elon Musk might make that happen for me.
Terry Virts: He might.
Brett McKay: But just like… Right, he might, but this idea of skill acquisition, I was just really impressed with how many things you had to learn as an astronaut. So before we get into that, let’s talk about your career as an astronaut, how long you’ve been an astronaut, and what missions have you flown?
Terry Virts: Right. So I showed up at NASA in 2000, and I actually left in 2016. So I left a few years ago. And I flew two missions during that time. I went up on Space Shuttle Endeavor on a two-week flight, and then I went back a few years later with the Russians on a Soyuz for expedition 42 and 43. And that was a 200-day flight. So I spent a little over seven months in space total.
Brett McKay: And so let’s talk about how did… Is this something you always wanted to do as a kid? ‘Cause I know every kid probably had that, “I wanna be an astronaut,” moment when they were asked in second grade, but did you have that and you set a plan like, “I’m gonna… This is why I’m gonna do this and do this and do this next to become an astronaut?”
Terry Virts: I did. So as a little kid, I was just fascinated, I read a book about Apollo, that was the first book I ever read. So I grew up with posters of airplanes and rockets and galaxies, and that’s what covered my room, all the walls in my room. And I read a book called The Right Stuff when I was 13, and that really showed the way, the early astronauts had been fighter pilots and test pilots and went to NASA, and so, I didn’t know anything about it. I was the first… My mom and dad didn’t go to college, and I was kind of the first person in this career path, and so, I taught myself the stuff I needed to do, and it started off at the Air Force Academy, I was an F-16 pilot and eventually an astronaut.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, I saw that you went to the Air Force Academy, I remember when I was a kid, I had that plan, “I was like, I’m gonna go to the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot, so that I can become an astronaut.” I had this moment I went to the Air Force Academy and they were talking about what it takes to be… And I think I was like 13, I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if this is for me.” [laughter] And that killed it.
Terry Virts: Definitely, it’s a good place to be from.
Brett McKay: Right.
Terry Virts: Not necessarily a good place to be at. But yeah, it was one of the steps along the way, and I’m so thankful I went there. But you brought up an interesting point. People always say, “How long does it take to be an astronaut? How long is the training?” And when you get to NASA, you’re an ASCAN, they wanna make you feel special, so you’re an astronaut candidate, they call you an ASCAN. So you do that for about a year and a half or so. But the reality is, it’s a life-long process, it’s a lifetime of learning. It started when I was a little kid. My parents supported me, I got a telescope, they didn’t know anything about it so I had to teach myself how use a telescope. I got a camera, they weren’t photographers, so I had to learn focus and exposure and all that stuff. They got me a TRS-80 computer when I was a little kid. Well, probably in middle school I guess. So I had to teach myself Basic. ‘Cause the computer wouldn’t do anything, there was no memory or anything, so you turned it on and if you wrote a program it would do something, other than that it just didn’t do anything, so I had to teach myself Basic. So that learning to learn and enjoying learning started when I was a little kid and it’s still going on today. And it’s really a life-long process, it’s not just one specific career path.
Brett McKay: Well, it seems like one of the big skills you have to have as an astronaut is learning how to learn, like that meta-cognition, or that meta-learning.
Terry Virts: It’s, like I said, it’s life-long, it’s so important. And there’s a lot of professions where there’s a specific thing you do. Like, if you wanna be a dentist, you go, there’s a path, you learn your training, and then you kinda do the same thing forever. If you’re an accountant, you go through business school and you pass the CPA and you probably do the same thing forever. But when you’re an astronaut, it’s not like in Star Trek where everybody has a different color shirt and you know that the red guys are gonna go get killed by the aliens, [chuckle] and the yellow guy’s in charge, and the blue guy’s the doctor. That’s ’cause they had 100 people on Enterprise, right? For the space station, we only had a handful of people. So everybody had to do everything. I was the crew medical officer, I was the dentist, I did a filling in space, it was the first ever filling. I did maintenance on equipment, I did spacewalks, I did 250 different experiments on science experiments.
And I’m not a PhD. Even if you are a PhD, if you’re the world’s expert in genetic, microbiology, whatever, there may be one experiment in that that’ll be great for you, but the other 249, you’re not a PhD in. And so my point is, astronauts have to be very broad-based. You have to be able to be reasonably good at everything. You don’t have to be the world’s expert, really, in anything, but it is definitely a different skill set than many normal jobs, I think.
Brett McKay: So you said you joined NASA in 2000. How long did it take you before you went on your first mission?
Terry Virts: [chuckle] Great question. Forever. So there were several things that built up. First of all, NASA just hired way too many people. Between ’95 and 2000, they hired 125 astronauts, because we’re building the space station, and the space shuttle’s flying seven people at a time, and all this stuff was going on. Well, they had some mechanical problems that really slowed down the shuttle flight rate, and then the Columbia accident happened, the tragedy, and that slowed things down by a couple years, and then NASA management decided that space station flights were so complicated that only experienced astronauts could fly on them, so the rookies just ground to a halt. For folks in my class, and the class before me, I think everybody waited somewhere between 8 and 12 years to fly. So it was a long wait, but it was worth it. It was the most amazing experience you can imagine, but it was definitely a long wait. And you just… You had to keep your head up, and of all the things that people suffer in the world, working at NASA as an astronaut waiting to fly is not the worst. And so all of us ended up surviving that, and the wait was worth it.
Brett McKay: And what did you do during that time? So what kinda training do you do when you’re training for a mission that you don’t know if it’s even gonna happen?
Terry Virts: Right. Well, there’s some specific things like rendezvous training. That was something that we had to go through, as a shuttle pilot, I had to learn that. Spacewalk training, as a pilot, the shuttle pilots didn’t do spacewalks, but I really wanted to do the training, and so they let me do it. There were several others. One of the biggest was CAPCOM training, and so I would go to Mission Control and work as what you call CAPCOM. That’s the person in Mission Control that talks to the crew. So there’s the Flight Control team, the flight director’s the boss, he’s in charge of everybody, all the different flight controllers or the engineers that track each specific system, and then the CAPCOM is a separate person that does the talking. And so the Flight Control team kind of figures out what’s going on, and then the CAPCOM is the translator between Mission Control and the crew. So I did that for years. I had several other jobs. I was in charge of our T-38 program, the jets that we fly. I worked as a support astronaut for some guys that were going into space. And so there’s a variety of jobs you do, but the best job to have is to be training for an actual space flight.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the T-38s. I didn’t really know much about this. These are the jets that you guys, the pilots, use to train for space flight. But what’s the correlation there, because flying on Earth is completely different from flying in space?
Terry Virts: Yeah. So it’s the most important training we do. And you’re exactly right, landing a T-38, the stick and rudder skills that you need, has nothing to do with space flight, but what does have to do with space flight is something called situational awareness, which is just kind of maintaining SA on what’s happening now, on what’s gonna be happening in the future. We call it staying ahead of the jet. So if your airplane’s flying along at 300 knots or 500 knots, your brain has to be in front of that, thinking about where are we gonna be, how much gas are we gonna have, what’s the weather gonna be, is the runway okay to land, it is shut down for some reason, and so this mental process of staying ahead of the jet, just thinking in the future, is really important while your pink butt is on the line. So in a simulator, if you crash the shuttle, you hit the pause button, you crawl out and you go to lunch. In a T-38, you can’t do that. Unless you land safely, you don’t land safely. And so that training is all about the mental aspect of flying. We call it head work or just keeping SA, like I talked about, and that’s the best… Flying jets and airplanes in general is the best space flight readiness training, I think.
Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned flight simulators, and if people have seen Apollo 13, they remember that famous scene where they just kept doing the simulations over and over again, where they just tried different things, different malfunctions, and they do that. So how long do you… When you’re preparing for a mission, how much of your time was spent in the simulator?
Terry Virts: [chuckle] All of it. Not all of it, but a lot of it. And the long wait that I had before my first shuttle flight, it was actually pretty good, ’cause as a pilot, I got very comfortable with lots and lots of different malfunctions. And the space shuttle was incredibly complicated, it’s the most amazing flying machine, the most complicated flying machine man has ever built, for sure. And just being able to get comfortable with all the different computer malfunctions and electrical malfunctions and engine problems, and all the stuff that our simulator supervisors, that, I think I wrote a chapter about that, they would dream up and throw the kitchen sink at us. And so having that time and spending hours in the sim was really good. The most important part about it wasn’t actually doing it, it was actually debriefing it.
And that’s the lesson… I do a lot of corporate speaking, and that’s one of the most important lessons to learn, is that you really need to debrief whatever you’re doing. If you’re running a bank or you’re making investment decisions, or you’re building construction homes or whatever, when you’re done with something, you can’t just go, “Well, that was great,” and move on to the next thing. You really should take some time to debrief it honestly, ’cause that’s the only way you get better. As a fighter pilot, that’s part of the culture ingrained from day one. The gloves come off, there’s no rank in the debrief, debriefs should be brutal and honest, and not just to tear someone down, but to get better and not make the same mistakes again.
Brett McKay: Right. After Action Reports, I’ve heard them called…
Terry Virts: After Action Reports, in the military, we called… That’s what they were called. After Action Reports. Yeah. Very, very important. And again, don’t do it just to kill people and fire people, but do it to get better and learn from mistakes.
Brett McKay: Right. ‘Cause you have to do that ’cause the risk is really high with space flight.
Terry Virts: With space flight it is. And one of the lessons that I really teach when I do this consulting is that just because something worked doesn’t mean you made the right decision. I’m a baseball guy, right. Just ’cause you bunted with the bases loaded and your slugger up to bat and he got a hit doesn’t mean that was the right decision. He probably should have swung away. Just because you flew the space shuttle for 20 years with foam falling off and it never killed anybody doesn’t mean it was the right decision. It was the wrong decision, and it eventually did kill the Columbia crew. For Challenger, just ’cause you’ve been launching and there was gas leaking from the solid rocket booster and it never killed anybody, it was the wrong decision, because it killed the Challenger crew, and so NASA’s made some really spectacular mistakes that killed crews, and that lesson of, so you really have to debrief it for, “Did we make the right decision?” not “Was it the right outcome?”
A lot of businesses will compensate executives based on stock performance: If your stock goes up, you get a bonus. Well, your stock might have gone up ’cause it’s 2018, or your stock might have gone down ’cause it’s 2009 or 2020. That doesn’t mean you’re a good manager or a bad manager, it just means that the calendar is what it is. And so you have to look deeper, like were you making the right decisions, not what was the ultimate outcome, because sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you get unlucky. I’m a baseball fan, the Astros have been getting extremely unlucky against the Tampa Bay Rays, and they just need to keep doing what they’re doing ’cause they’re doing the right thing. So that concept of debriefing things and not doing it based on the outcome, but based on were you making the right decisions, is really, really important for fighter pilots and for astronauts and for anybody in business.
Brett McKay: One of the interesting chapters that I… It was pretty substantial too… It was about survival training for astronauts, and I was thinking, “Why would you go to Alaska to learn how to survive in the wilds?” But it makes sense. So what contingency are you planning for there as an astronaut, and besides just physical survival, what did the survival training, what other skills did it impart to you?
Terry Virts: Right, so that’s a great point. Well, first of all, that chapter is half what it was originally. I wrote a really long chapter, I had to cut it in half. And there’s two parts of the survival training that I had to do in my career. One was survival training. As an Air Force pilot, if you eject over enemy lines, you had to survive and you had to evade, and then if you got captured, you had to resist, and so the training is called SERE, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, and I did that with the Air Force, and then I did it again with the French Air Force, ’cause I was on an exchange with them, and then I did part of it with the US Navy, ’cause NASA sent us to do the same thing when we showed up to be astronauts. And then with the Russian military, I also did winter survival and water survival in case the Soyuz landed in the snow or in the ocean.
So I did all these different survival training, but then NASA sent us on a program called NOLS, National Outdoor Leadership School, and that was not necessarily for survival skills, it was more for the emotional, mental aspect of being in a remote situation, having to take care of yourself, leadership and group dynamics, and debriefing and giving each other feedback, and their real goal of NOLS was just to make us as miserable as possible, so that we would kinda learn the… You get to know each other. On the second time I did this trip, it rained every day for almost two weeks, and by every day, I mean all day, every day, 24/7. So you kinda get to know each other [chuckle] pretty well when you’re suffering like that, and so there’s really two different reasons: A, to survive and, B, to have this emotional group dynamics, how do you get along when life is tough. And they were all really good, and the experiences in the mountains in Alaska, Prince William Sound, kayaking, is beautiful. Sometimes you just need to get away from suburbia, where I’m guessing most of your podcast listeners are, that’s where I am, and just get out and turn your phone off and look at nature.
Brett McKay: So did you do this NOLS thing with the people you would go up on your mission with?
Terry Virts: Well, yes, it was supposed to be with more of them and then they ended up… The crew changed, but I did… There were one or two folks, and I think there were two other folks that I went with, and the other six or seven ended up not being together. And that was the original plan.
Brett McKay: So another part of this preparation when you get ready for a mission you go into detail about in the book is getting physically fit for it, and you might be thinking well, you’re in zero G, there’s no stress on your body, but… When you talk about space, like zero G, it actually puts a lot of stress on your body. So what’s the physical fitness programming looking like, and what are you training for exactly when you train for going into outer space?
Terry Virts: So ironically, you’re right. The pull-ups are easier in space, but everything else is harder. So you wanna be just generally fit: Good cardiovascular, you wanna have muscles. A lot of weight lifting and running, anything where you’re pounding your body is good for your bones because when bones get compression and when they get pounded, they grow. When they are complacent and laying around and floating in zero G, they deteriorate, they shrink. You have bone loss. So just basic fitness is one of the things. A specific reason to do the physical fitness training is for spacewalking, and especially hand strength and forearm strength, ’cause you move with your hands and you do all your tasks with your hands, and you’re in this big, giant, bulky, couple hundred pound pressurized space suit that feels like metal and it’s really hard to move, and so it’s like having those balls that you can squeeze for stress relief or whatever for exercise at your desk for eight hours while you’re in the suit, and so especially your hands and fingers can get worn out.
So the most important part of physical fitness was just to keep your body healthy and to prevent bone and muscle loss, and we do a lot of exercise in space. In space there’s a two and a half hour allotment every day of time for you to exercise. And so I was really diligent about that. They measured my bone density before the mission with this big X-ray machine called a DEXA scan, and then after my mission, 200 days in space, and I had lost 0.0% of my overall bone density, which was amazing to me, and the doctors were really surprised. But basically by doing diligent exercise every day, and I took a vitamin D pill every day, those two things kept my bones in good shape. My muscles were in good shape. There was a little bit of muscle loss, but I did 20 pull-ups the week I got back. I came back in really good physical shape. So bones and muscles, those problems had been solved, in my opinion, by the space station, by the protocols we have learned on the ISS.
Brett McKay: So like resistance training, how do you do that? Is it just like a Bowflex type thing? Do you use resistance stands?
Terry Virts: It is. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Terry Virts: The IMAX movie I made, A Beautiful Planet, there’s a scene of Samantha, my crew mate Samantha Cristoforetti, exercising. So it’s like a Bowflex, except for the Bowflex uses just springs basically, you bend metal and that creates force. In space, they have these cylinders, so it’s like a vacuum tube and you’re pulling against the vacuum. And you can make a lot of force. For deadlifts and squats, I think you could go up to 600 pounds. I never did, but… I mean, that’s dangerous. You could crush yourself under that thing, so you really have to be careful. And then you could do bench press and squats and deadlifts, and crunches and curls, and all the basic stuff you do on high school football, you can do in space, and it works. Like I said, I came back and it’s like going to a spa, if you eat healthy, there’s no McDonald’s. So it’s reasonably healthy food, and you do two and a half hours of exercise every day for half of the year, I came back in great shape, no fat, I was muscular, it was pretty good.
Brett McKay: So you came out in good shape, but did you have any health issues while in space?
Terry Virts: Yeah, the biggest thing for me was cancer. I got skin cancer after my shuttle flight and then again after my space station flight, and I’m still… In fact, I just had to set up my dermatology appointment ’cause I got some coming back. So I think that’s just a life after my space flights, that’s something I’m just gonna have to deal with for the rest of my life because of radiation in space. Even though you’re still protected by the magnetic field for the most part, you’re not protected by the atmosphere, and you get this stuff called galactic cosmic radiation that are really super high energy particles that they can mess with the DNA in your cells, and NASA really doesn’t know how it affects us at all. They don’t do a before and after a check of our DNA. That really blew me away. I thought that there’d be a lot of research in that, ’cause it’s really the one and only problem. It’s the 700-pound gorilla as far as longer duration human flights into the deep solar system is cancer, and NASA’S not studying it at all. They do measure how much radiation we get, but they don’t measure the effects of that radiation on our DNA. So I think that’s of all the questions that still need to be answered, how does radiation affect us? And trying to test out different ways to block it is probably the top question that needs to be answered.
Brett McKay: Well, you had skin cancer, you’re dealing with that, that’s a big one. But I didn’t know this about space travel, but other astronauts get just like rashes and just other stuff just happens to their skin, it looks kind of gross. It’s uncomfortable, it’s not affecting their health but it sounds like it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant.
Terry Virts: The rashes are interesting. Just about everybody I know has some kind of skin problem, and it’s interesting. I was doing another interview with a med school this morning and they asked me that same question. I don’t know why, there is a different kind of biome on the space station, so there’s different kind of funguses and stuff floating around up there. Your body is just behaving differently, different hormones and organs are acting differently, so maybe that is part of it contributing, I don’t know. I think, and I’m just a fighter pilot, I’m no doctor, but I think the lack of soap is a problem. NASA did give me some soap, but not very much. You get a bag of soap once every two weeks, I think Capri Sun, the little juice boxes or something. Imagine having a juice box full of soap that you could squirt into a towel and wipe yourself down.
Well, they were only giving it to us every two weeks, so that’s not a lot of soap. And we had some camping towels, these little small towels that they had some soap in them, so there was some soap. I just think if you had a better cleanliness, that might help. And I was the crew medical officer, so I was handing out supplies, drugs and stuff, when they were needed, but we really didn’t have any good skin cream and stuff. So if somebody had a problem, the NASA docs would go to the pharmacy, pick something out and put it on the next cargo ship, so a few months later, you’d get a tube of cream for whatever. Yeah, that was a weird one. I didn’t really expect it, but the skin rashes, like you said, that’s not life-threatening and you get back to Earth and that ends, but that was an annoyance of space flight.
Brett McKay: You brought this point of hygiene and how there might be a different biome up there, ’cause I think people typically think when they think of space station, they think of Stanley Kubrick, it’s super clean and sleek, and it’s like an Apple device, but the way you describe it is space station smells like a locker room, basically, in a lot of places.
Terry Virts: When you work out, it does. For the most part, the station is metal and plastic and that kind of stuff, but the gym clothes, like your Under Armour t-shirts and stuff, those things get pretty stinky after about a day or two. Although I did this one experiment for this wool-infused fabric, just think of an Under Armour t-shirt only with wool and less polyester, and I was worried that it would just itch and I would hate it. But oh, my God, that shirt was amazing. I worked out every day drenching wet. Just imagine going for a 30-minute run in the Houston humidity, how sweaty you’d be, and that’s the way I got every single day in this shirt for every day for a month, and it didn’t stink at all. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe this technology. But the station itself, it’s not 2001 Stanley Kubrick. It is, like you said, it is plastic and sterile materials, but there are so many wires and cables and laptops and boxes and cameras, and there’s just so much stuff there. The clutter factor is pretty high. If you’re like a OCD neat freak, it’s gonna make your head explode ’cause there’s a lot of stuff just everywhere.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about a typical day. You mentioned you had two and a half hours a day allotted for exercise. So what did your typical day look like? When did it start? How do you manage time in space, when you might experience multiple sunrises and sunsets?
Terry Virts: So the… 16 of them a day. You go around the Earth 16 times every 24-hour period. So lots of sunrises and sunsets, but basically, we had an Omega X-33 watch, and it had every feature you could imagine, it’s the most… It’s the coolest watch. And so we set that to GMT, so basically London time, and the day would start about 7:30 in the morning. We’d have a conference call with Houston and Moscow and Japan and Europe and Huntsville, Alabama, which is where the payloads, the NASA science is done out of Huntsville. We call everybody, they give us the briefing, and then we go work. And you work all day long, couple hours of exercise, they normally give you an hour break at some point to check your email and eat lunch and whatever. By the end of the day, you’re done around 7 o’clock at night, and you have another conference call, everybody, Houston, Moscow, talk to everybody on Earth, and then you’re done, and then you could make dinner.
For me, by the end of the day, I’d usually have three or four or five or 10 little compact flash cards for my camera. So I would eat my dinner and then get to work downloading all those images that I had taken, maybe go take a few more images. We had Picasso was our software that they had for us, and so I’d look over the images, see what was good. If I found a good one, I emailed it. I had a guy at NASA that did my Twitter for me, so I would send him images and tell him what to tweet, and he would log on and actually tweet it. So I would send him the tweets and he would mechanically tweet it. And then I was always up super late. Samantha and I were both late night people that… Our crewmates were all early morning guys, which actually worked out well, ’cause they would a lot of times wake up early and get their exercise done early, and that freed up the exercise equipment for us, ’cause we were night owls, and so… And then do it again the next day. Usually got about six or seven hours of sleep a night. So by the weekend, I was exhausted, and Sundays, I just didn’t set an alarm and I’d sleep until 11 o’clock or noon or something like that, catch up on my sleep, and then get back to work on Monday.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you mentioned a lot of things that I think it’d be fun to talk about, ’cause this is the stuff that people wonder about living in outer space. So you mentioned food, you had dinner. I think when people think space food, they think of… For me, I go back to elementary school, the tubes of spaghetti in a toothpaste tube, or astronaut ice cream. I’d buy…
Terry Virts: Astronaut ice cream. Yup.
Brett McKay: Right. Has it improved since the ’80s?
Terry Virts: So astronaut ice cream for me was Ben and Jerry’s. So they have these freezers for biology experiments. So as blood and urine and saliva and rodents and plants and worms and all the different biology experiments we do, we freeze them, send them back to Earth. So when they launched the freezers, they were empty, and so they would fill them up with… On one of the missions, they put some ice cream in there, which was super cool. So I got a picture of Chunky Monkey floating in the middle of the lab. It’s a great picture. [chuckle] So that… The astronaut ice cream you get at the Science Center is not… We don’t have that for real. Most of the food, if you were ever in the military, or you see those little green bags of food, they’re called MREs. We have the same thing. So basically, MREs, you rip it open and eat it. You can warm it up if you want, you don’t have to, and it’s meat and potatoes and soup and vegetables, and desserts, just ready to go.
The other type of food we have is dehydrated. So there’s a food lab here in Houston, and the ladies that work there, they cook all different kinds of meat and potatoes and vegetables and fruits and dehydrate them. We stick it into a machine in space, fill it back up with water and wait about 10 minutes and it turns into food. And so those are the two main types of food. There’s also some just straight from the grocery store. So they would send us some bonus stuff like little bags of olives or tuna fish or candy. I like chocolate, so Beth Turner was her name, the support lady I had would send me lots of chocolate. So that’s kind of the food. And at night time I would, whenever I could, I would take my dinner, warm it up, put it in a big zip lock and float down to the Russian segment where those guys were, and had dinner with them because it’s very easy for them to work on their modules, we work on our modules and we never see each other, and I really wanted to have one crew. So I made it a point to go down and spend as much time as I could with my Russian colleagues. And that was the highlight of my time in space, was hanging out with those guys. We had a lot of fun, for sure.
Brett McKay: It sounds like there was some bartering too of food between the two countries.
Terry Virts: There was. Well, it worked out really well because I started this bag, I wrote down uneaten food. So stuff that we didn’t like on the American side, and by American, it means not Russian, Japanese and Europeans, whatever. So whatever we didn’t like, like curry vegetables, I just couldn’t take. We had 500,000 things of coffee and tea, it was too much. There were just a few foods that we didn’t like. And every week or two weeks those guys would… The Russians would come down and raid that bag and they’d basically eat everything that we didn’t like, they liked it. And we would go down there and we would get fish from them. We didn’t have any fish on our side, it was weird. They had so many cans of fish and meat, and they got tired of eating canned meat for three meals a day, but we loved it. So it was actually a really good system. They got some variety, we got some variety, and as far as I know, for 200 days, no one ever threw any food away. We just ate the other guys’ food, and it worked out really well.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned sleep. Was sleeping a problem? Did you have problems staying asleep on the space station?
Terry Virts: I was worried about that and I didn’t. My sleep in space was so good, I just was out and slept perfectly. In fact, I did an experiment on the shuttle and it’s… Before there was Apple watches and Fitbits, they had this, they call it an Acto watch, and my sleep on Earth was up and down, and up and down, and a little fitful. In space it was just flat line, I was out. So sleeping in space is awesome. There’s something that’s so cool about floating. We each had our crew quarters, which is super important psychologically. So I would just zip myself up in my sleeping bag and float, I wasn’t attached to anything. I was literally just floating in this little phone booth size thing and it was so awesome. It was really cool.
Brett McKay: Did you have space lag when you first got up there?
Terry Virts: On my shuttle flight we had sleep shifted, so we spent about a week or two transitioning our wake-up time. It was like a 12-hour sleep shift, it was painful. So we were… I was already adjusted to the new schedule, and the way the Russians do it, you don’t sleep shift, you just pull an all-nighter [chuckle] and you slam shift once you get there. But it didn’t… It wasn’t a problem, I just felt falling asleep was easy. Now, I felt dizzy, I felt terrible so on my first flight. On my second flight when I went back, my brain was used to it, it knew what space was, but on my first flight it took me about two days to get adjusted to the dizziness.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about going to the bathroom, because the thing I remember going to the bathroom in space, I think it’s from Space Camp, that 19… I just remember the vacuum cleaner, and I’m like, I don’t know about that. Is that what it’s still like?
Terry Virts: It’s all about airflow. Yeah, it is. If there’s not air flow, there’s no gravity to keep everything going in the right direction. So air flow is the secret sauce that makes sure everything moves in the right direction. So yeah, that’s what does it. There’s a hose for number one, and a can for number two. But the key parts of both of those are air flow. So there’s an emergency procedure, if the fan stops when you’re in the middle of it, you gotta shut the hatch immediately and do a couple of things. That’s an emergency procedure you wanna have memorized, you don’t wanna have to get the checklist out in case the fan died in the middle of your operation.
Brett McKay: And what happens to the waste? Particularly number two, is it like latrine duty like in boy scouts where you had to clean things up?
Terry Virts: The basic handshake was when the can’s full, you empty it. So it’s just like for food, when the food bag’s empty, you trash it and go get a new one out and that takes… It’s a pain, you gotta go dig around, it’s a 10 or 15-minute thing, but the toilet can was… So the urine, the hose goes into a recycling system, and the American segment has this amazing water reclamation system, which is amazing. It saves a lot of money ’cause it’s probably $40,000 or $50,000 per liter of water, so it’s very expensive to launch it, so the recycling is super important. But number two just goes in a can. It’s a Russian KTO can, and you seal it, torque it down with a torque wrench and put it in this big giant bag. It’s bigger than a washing machine full of these poop cans, and then every few months, a Progress, which is a Russian cargo ship, would go deliver us supplies, we’d fill it up with trash and it would go back to Earth and so… And burn up in the atmosphere. So if you ever see one of these vehicles burning up and there’s streaks of fire across the sky, you’ll know [chuckle] what that fire is made of.
Brett McKay: There’s poop in there.
Terry Virts: Yes.
Brett McKay: That is poop. I’m gonna tell my son that. He’ll get a kick out of that. So I imagine people who become astronauts, they’re very intelligent, they’re skilled, they’re masters of what they do in their craft, and then they’re trained. There’s one component that it’s hard to train for maybe, it’s like the psychological component. What psychological toll can space travel have on people? And this is actually becoming more of a concern as we’re thinking about going to Mars or whatever.
Terry Virts: Right. I think it’s the biggest issue. And that’s why NASA send us on those NOLS experiences. I think it’s a very big deal. Part of it is just your personality. Some people are laid back, some people can roll with the punches. Some people are uptight, and in the movies, you always have the screaming astronauts and, “Do this and get over here now and blah, blah, blah.” That’s not the guy that you wanna fly into space with. You’d rather have the calm, not get flustered kinda personality, but you need to learn how to have feedback with each other that’s not terrible like, “Hey, can you stop doing this, it’s really bugging me.” ‘Cause otherwise they’ll keep doing it, it’ll really bug you, and it could turn into an explosion and you don’t want that.
So I actually did a program at Harvard Business School years and years ago, and that was the best space station commander training I ever had, that semester I spent at Harvard, ’cause they spent a lot of time on that fuzzy soft skills, especially as guys… I was a fighter pilot and I’m like, “Just put me in charge, everything will be good. That’s all I need to worry about.” [chuckle] Before I did the program at Harvard, and then afterwards I realized, hey, you know what? If you have a group, if you have a team, you could probably make better decisions if you use your team properly and feedback was a big part of that. So that was definitely a learning and maturing experience for me, but I was lucky, the crew I had when I was Commander on exhibition 43, the crew was really good and we got along well, and there was problems, of course, but nothing big and as a group, we’re still good friends to this day, which is pretty awesome.
Brett McKay: So you got to do a space walk which is… You said is not very common for pilots to do.
Terry Virts: Yeah.
Brett McKay: What was that like experience? Did you have that sort of a spiritual existential awe-inspiring experience?
Terry Virts: I had this one moment, 99% of it was work. I never felt so on the clock. It’s worse than NFL Draft, ’cause it’s dangerous, you wanna get back in as soon as you can, and I just didn’t have any time at all. And so there was this one moment, I had finished… We were plugging in cables and I was done with mine. I was waiting on my partner, and I stopped and I just turned around, and I had had a face full of metal for hours. Even though you’re in space, you’re looking at the station, you’re plugging in equipment, that’s what you’re focused on. So I turned around and the sun was rising, and it was just from one side of my peripheral vision to the other was the Earth rim with the thin atmosphere, and it was going from blue, and then it turns this orange, red, pink rainbow of colors. It was so gorgeous, it was like I could hear God, and I was seeing something that humans weren’t meant to see.
And then I had to get back to work ’cause I had to plug in my next cable. So it was like the most extreme sublime to mundane swing you can imagine. And that’s the way space travel was from my first minutes, on my first shuttle flight, all the way through seven months in space. I would have these 99% working on boring metal equipment boxes to, “I’m seeing God here.” It was really quite an emotional swing, but it was pretty awesome, and seeing that outside while I’m actually out in space was amazing.
Brett McKay: It’s comforting because I think… ‘Cause that’s like life on Earth. You’ll have moments where it’s just like, “Oh, this is amazing.” You see a child born or something. And then this is… The next thing, the next minute, you’re picking a social security number for your kid and whatever. That’s what space is like. So that’s what life’s like. Okay.
Terry Virts: It is, it is.
Brett McKay: And when you got back from space, you were there for 200 days, it sounds like you didn’t… Like physical adaptation getting back wasn’t too bad, not too much muscle deterioration, no bone deterioration. Did you have any problems adjusting back to gravity?
Terry Virts: The biggest thing for me, I felt heavy, I felt really heavy, and I was super, super, super dizzy. I was able to walk around, I was able to move around. I didn’t get sick or anything, but I felt like if I would have just shook my head, I would have barfed for sure. And I always wanted either a handrail or somebody next to me. I never fell, but it sure did feel like I was going to. The first day back was like a couple of bottles of wine. The second day back was like a bottle of wine, I was pretty dizzy. The third day back was like a couple of glasses of wine. I landed in Kazakhstan 24 hours later, and three flights on a business jet, I was back in Houston. I went right to the gym to do my rehab. And then my son had gotten his driver’s license while I was in space, and so he said, “Hey, Dad, let’s go car shopping.” So he drove, he took me to the Ford dealer and we looked at pick up trucks. And I remember thinking, “I’m back on Earth and it’s great.” I was worried that I’d be depressed and I’d miss it, and I didn’t at all. It was just great to be back on Earth. So I thought it was gonna be a psychological problem, it wasn’t. And the dizziness only took a few days.
Brett McKay: Do you still have like a… You said you didn’t have any problems adjusting, you didn’t have that let down, but do you still yearn to get back up there?
Terry Virts: You know, not really.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Terry Virts: I spent seven months there, it was great. But life on Earth is great, too. There’s things on Earth that I didn’t get in space, and so it was… If I could go make a movie, actually, I would do that, but I’m happy to be on Earth. There’s a lot of things I wanna do, there’s a lot of projects I have going on, and I think it’s important to have something to look forward to. That’s not… A lot of my colleagues suffer from, they need to go back, they need to go back. They wanna do it again. It’s a powerful drug. Space is a powerful drug. And for me, luckily, I have a mindset that, that was cool, I’m glad I did it, now I wanna do other things. After my first flight, I wanted to fly again. I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do when I grew up. I actually went to Harvard for a semester. And when I went there, I realized, “Hey, there are some pretty cool things to be done on Earth, but I wanna fly again.” So I went and I flew again, and at that point, I was in my 40s. I was still energetic and I had the ambition, and I wanted to do this and that, and there were some business projects I wanna do. I’m writing this book and I have some film and TV that I wanna do.
So I said, “It’s time to leave.” And I’ve done everything there is to do. I was a station commander, I did space walks, I was a shuttle pilot, I’ve done everything there is. There are the new cap, the Boeing and the Space X capsules are coming out, but they’re not really that interesting because you literally don’t do anything. You just sit there and ride, and they’re 100% automated. So as a test pilot that wasn’t really that exciting to me, so I just decided it was time. And I had been there for 16 years, it was… I had a long career at NASA, so you definitely don’t wanna leave that too soon. But in my mind, I didn’t wanna leave too late either. I didn’t wanna be 60 years old hanging on for another flight. It was the right time for me.
Brett McKay: And what do you think is the future of manned space flight? There’s all this talk about going back to the Moon, Mars. Is that gonna happen? Do you think it should happen? Of course, these are political debates, too, policy debates, but as someone who’s been to space, what’s your take?
Terry Virts: Yeah, I spoke at the White House two years ago to the Vice President of the National Space Council. And my message for him was it’s not about the rocket science, it’s about the political science. That’s what really drives these programs. So I think Mars should be our long-term goal, and I think the Moon is a great testing ground and stepping stone to get to Mars. I think you need to build up approach, but I also think that the nation is really badly in debt right now, and we were badly in debt a year ago. And now after Coronavirus, it’s a problem, it’s a problem. It’s probably the number one global security problem is the American debt, because if America’s hampered ’cause… And we can’t act because of our debt, then that allows other nations that don’t share our democratic values to take over.
And so we need to get our debt under control. So I don’t think there’s gonna be a lot of additional discretionary spending on NASA in the coming decade or two. The good news is we have a private sector and they’re very innovative and they can do things much quicker and much faster than the government. I think that if we can figure out how to do public-private partnerships right, I think the future of space travel can be really exciting. I know Jim Bridenstine, he’s the current NASA administrator, and I know he is really focused on this. So I think that’s a good positive thing, but I don’t think the NASA budget is gonna be exploding any time soon.
Brett McKay: Well, Terry, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book? And I also know, in addition to the IMAX film you made, A Beautiful Planet, you also recently made a film about setting the world record for the fastest pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the Earth via jet. So where can people go to learn all about that?
Terry Virts: So How To Astronaut, I always encourage folks to go to their local bookstore. It’s any bookstore in America, and many around the English-speaking world will have it. You can always get it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, etcetera. How To Astronaut, it’s a lot of fun. I wrote this book to make people laugh and say, “Wow.” Fifty-one short chapters, it should be easy to read, it’s not a technical book. It’s a great Christmas gift, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day gift. So How To Astronaut is out there.
And then One More Orbit, the movie that we made, is really cool. I think it’s the movie that we need in 2020. It’s about this exploration, this drama of setting a world record, but it’s really about how these eight people from eight different countries came together during Apollo that brought the world together. We took off and landed from the Kennedy Space Center on the anniversary of Apollo 11, so it’s about how exploration brings us together. So it’s like a fun, a little bit of drama, positive movie. I think it’s great for kids and adults. So One More Orbit is out there on iTunes and Amazon, and I think 20 different pay-per view channels.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Terry Virts, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Terry Virts: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Terry Virts. He’s the author of the book, How To Astronaut. You can find it an amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at his website, terryvirts.com. Also check out our show notes aom.is/astronaut, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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