For five months in 2015, Terry Virts lived in a world of color. The NASA commander and crack photographer had helped install a 360-degree viewing bubble aboard the International Space Station, and every time it orbited above the crimson sands of the Australian desert, the entire station turned red. Above the Sahara, his camera lens filled with a pinkish orange. Northern lights bathed him in a brilliant turquoise. Even during Virts’s very first spaceflight, as he sped toward the sunrise, he peered into a shade of blue he’d never seen before. “It was this bright, deep, intense royal-blue band in the atmosphere,” he said. “It was incredible.”
Virts wound up taking more photos in space ― around 319,000 ― than any astronaut before him. He stole every free moment he could from his 12-hour workdays of science experiments and equipment maintenance to snap images of mountain peaks, lightning storms, 20 typhoons and hurricanes, cityscapes, and untouched islands. Busy editors pared down his vast collection into an incredible coffee-table book called View from Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World, and Virts’s video footage is featured in the new IMAX film A Beautiful Planet.
On Monday, February 26, Virts will recount his visual odyssey to a Santa Barbara audience, which he hopes will help us terrestrials better understand and appreciate the beauty and fragility of our planet. “NASA is really great about doing science in space and building equipment that works,” said Virts. “But it’s not great at telling stories.” Virts will discuss how it took blasting into orbit for him to learn profound lessons about life on the ground ― about “global wealth, environment, and the golden rule.” He’ll also detail the close working relationship American astronauts maintained with their Russian colleagues during a time of intense political tension not seen since Kennedy and Khrushchev.
Virts has always been a photography enthusiast, forever traveling with a camera around his neck and driving his kids crazy with nonstop family documentation. He admires photographer Frank Hurley, who memorialized Ernest Shackleton’s doomed 1914 Endurance voyage, and is a sucker for black-and-white nature imagery. Virts retired from NASA in 2016, but if he could glide back into the observation bubble one more time, he’d capture more images of moonrises. “And mountain lakes in Patagonia and New Zealand,” he said. “They’re just really spectacular.”
See Terry Virts and his work on Monday, February 26, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall, UCSB. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.