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Living in space puts Earth in a new light: ‘I’d never seen that shade of blue before’

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From watching lightning storms to giving the Vulcan salute over Boston, Nasa astronaut Terry Virts on his 200 days floating through the cosmos

The space suit is only a few layers of plastic and rubberised metallic material. Theres a very thin plastic shield covering your face, a few millimetres thick: thats your visor. Between your body and the other side of that plastic visor is instant death.

Its an amazing experience, outside in the cosmos.

Life in space is very interesting. Its in some ways similar to Earth its busy and you have a schedule you have to follow but theres one overriding thing that is unlike anything on Earth, and that is weightlessness.

Weightlessness is like this oppressive, all-encompassing force. It just envelops everything. Everything floats. The instant that the rocket engines shut down on your space shuttle, youre floating, immediately.

When you were born on Earth, you had a year or two to learn how to walk, and really three or five years to learn how to walk and run. But when youre an astronaut, the second the engines shut down, you have to learn how to float. There is a steep learning curve; most astronauts are learning for several weeks and often its a month or two before you get as good as you can.

Its a fun process. You move with your hands and you carry things with your feet, which is the opposite of how we were designed on Earth.

It was really cool, for lack of a better word, to learn how to do it.

The food in space is actually pretty good much better than what I cook by myself. Theres also fruit oranges they look pretty bad because theyre kind of shrivelled up, but they smell amazing. The space station is this sterile environment, its very plastic and metal and its 22C every day, theres never any rain, nothings ever messy. Its always like a hospital, very sterile. So its great to have smells from Earth.

One day I was floating through and I heard a bird chirping and I thought, What the heck is that, and I stopped and I went back. The Russian psychologist had sent Misha (Mikhail Kornienko) an MP3 file with sounds from Earth, and he was listening to birds chirp while he exercised.

We had a rain sound sent up too, and I spent about a month going to bed at night with my headset on, just listening to rain as I fell asleep.

Moon
Moon over the South China Sea, photographed from the International Space Station. Photograph: Terry Virts/Nasa

One weekend we took all the laptops in the station theres probably 20 or 30 laptops and we put rain on through them, and all weekend it rained. It was really cool at first but by Sunday night we were like thats enough rain, so we went around and turned the rain off.

Exercise is a big part of life in space because youre weightless, and when youre weightless your muscles and bones atrophy. So they have this exercise protocol of running on a treadmill: you put on a shoulder harness, and bungees that pull you down. The treadmill is on the wall. You have to learn how to run in this weird contraption, but over time I got to a point where I could run very fast, which was really cool.

Theres a bike which is interesting because theres no handlebars and theres no seat, theres just some pedals. You just kind of float there and pedal, and watch your TV show.

After 200 days of weightlessness, more than half of a year, I came back to Earth and had lost 0% of my bone density. I was amazed. To me, the space station had shown that humans can live and work in space for a long period of time at least 200 days and come back to Earth in great shape.

While I was in space, Mr Spock past away Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek. We were doing these space walks, three space walks in a week, and my friend from Nasa emailed me and said, Terry youve gotta do something for Leonard Nimoy. So I ran down to the Cupola, I did the Vulcan salute, I took a picture, and I tweeted it.

In the background there is Boston, MA, which just happens to be his home down.

Terry Virts (@AstroTerry)

pic.twitter.com/ErjTLgCIrL

February 28, 2015

As a fighter pilot we had a saying, Id rather be lucky than good. And this was an example of that. It was just completely lucky, it was not planned, I just happened to take this picture with Leonard Nimoys home town in the background. It was a wonderful piece of fate there.

On my first space flight, I launched at four in the morning. Both my launches were at four in the morning. If youre ever going to space, thats a great time to go shoot for four in the morning, the views are great. About 15 minutes later we were going over the North Atlantic in the daylight and I saw this thin, blue atmosphere. And I thought, Ive never seen that shade of blue before.

I never expected seeing a colour that I had never seen before but that was my first impression of Earth in the daylight: Ive never seen that shade of blue before.

Europe
Europe seen from the International Space Station. Photograph: Terry Virts/Nasa

These pictures of sunrises and sunsets never got old, but the camera does not capture them well enough. I want to learn how to paint so that I can paint what I saw.

While we were in space, a Russian rocket blew up the same one that launches crew. So they delayed our replacement crew while they did an investigation. We didnt know how long we were going to be up there. But my mentality was, Im in space, Im going to enjoy it, and then Ill have the rest of my life to be on Earth. And that helped, just knowing that there would be an end to it, and to try to enjoy it while I could.

When you launch with a rocket filled with millions of pounds of rocket fuel, the word safe doesnt really apply. Even just being in space if a golfball-sized meteorite hits your spaceship and puts a big hole in it, all the air will go out. You live with the danger of that happening.

In the space station there are three kinds of emergencies: fire, air leak or ammonia. And we had the ammonia alarm go off for the first time it had never happened in the history of the space station. Its our most serious alarm because ammonia is a very deadly chemical. They told us in training, If you can smell it, dont worry about it, because youre going to die. Thats how bad it is.

That alarm went off. We spent several hours hiding on the Russian side with the hatch closed because the Russians dont use ammonia, only the American side does thinking that the space station was possibly dead. Had there really been an ammonia leak it would have ended while we were there.

It turned out a few hours later that it was a false alarm. But that was probably one of my most scary moments.

The most amazing thing, for me, was the lightning on Earth. One of my favourite things to do in space was just to float. I would go into the Cupola, which is this module that I had the privilege of installing in 2010 on a space shuttle flight. I would open up all the window shades if we were passing over Africa or Indonesia, because there are all these amazing thunderstorms in the Pacific too. I would put on Enya, this song called Storms of Africa Id put that on the speakers and I would let go of the handles and float, just watching these storms.

Its kind of hard to recreate those moments.

Sleeping in space is amazing. We had a sleeping bag and we had a little cabin, like a phone booth. I would get in my sleeping bag and zip it up. I sleep with my arms in, some people sleep with their arms sticking up. I would pull the sleeping bag over my head, and then I would not velcro myself to the wall or put on the bungee I would just float in my little cabin. And every morning I would be turned around in a corner, because the air flow would spin me around like that.

There were a few times in space where I dreamt of Earth. I would dream of grass, or smells, or weather. Weather was something that I really missed a lot. Every once in a while it was really cool to dream of just something messy because the station was so sterile or some cold rain. Anything that was not sterile.

The space station was a wonderful place to live on its a great place, theres never anything wrong but sometimes you want something wrong. Thats what makes us human.

This is an edited extract of a speech Terry Virts gave in Sydney on 15 November. He was in Australia for events with The School of Life and Wired for Wonder

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/nov/23/living-in-space-puts-earth-in-a-new-light-id-never-seen-that-shade-of-blue-before

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