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How to Astronaut
An Insider's Guide to Leaving Planet Earth
By Terry Virts
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"There's something intriguing to be learned on practically every page… [How to Astronaut] captures the details of an extraordinary job and turns even the mundane aspects of space travel into something fascinating."––Publishers Weekly
Ride shotgun on a trip to space with astronaut Terry Virts. A born storyteller with a gift for the surprising turn of phrase and eye for the perfect you-are-there details, he captures all the highs, lows, humor, and wonder of an experience few will ever know firsthand. Featuring stories covering survival training, space shuttle emergencies, bad bosses, the art of putting on a spacesuit, time travel, and much more!
Taxiing for takeoff in a NASA T-38 supersonic jet for “Spaceflight Readiness Training.”
A Prelude to Flying Spaceships
There really is no way to completely prepare yourself for spaceflight. You can practice in simulators, study, talk to your fellow astronauts who have been there and done that. But in the end, it’s impossible to prepare yourself emotionally for what is about to happen when the rocket lights and you get launched off the planet in a trail of fire, and then someone turns off the motors and therefore gravity, and you feel like you’re falling (because you are).
Given this, the most important preparation I did before my first spaceflight was flying high-performance jets. Aviation is simply the closest analog we have down here on Earth to prepare astronauts for the rigors of spaceflight. It’s not because of the stick-and-rudder skills of landing, or doing aerial acrobatics, or flying in formation. It’s because of the mental aspects of flying—maintaining situational awareness, staying calm under pressure, making sound decisions in time-critical scenarios, staying “ahead of the jet” mentally, and anticipating several maneuvers into the future, all while zooming along at 500 mph, gas level falling by the minute, with thunderstorms bearing down on your landing airfield.
The ability to do all of these things and remain calm while your pink body—Air Force jargon for any pilot—is on the line is the most important skill any astronaut has. It’s a skill that can’t be taught in a simulator, where there are no real-world consequences. Fast jets are simply the best way for astronauts to hone their steely-eyed, fighter-pilot qualities.
I began my military career flying the T-37 and then the T-38 Talon, the Air Force’s basic and advanced jet trainers, before going on to fly the F-16 Viper for ten years. So when I got to NASA, flying the T-38 again was like riding a bike, even though it had been a decade since my last flight in this training aircraft. But for some of my colleagues, who only had a small amount of time in light aircraft, the T-38 was a huge step up. NASA threw them to the wolves, teaching them the basics of airmanship in the supersonic T-38, a trial by fire. Thankfully, they now send newly hired nonpilot astronauts through an abbreviated military training program in the T-6, a basic turboprop training aircraft that is much slower than a T-38, where they learn the basics of airmanship and flying. These astronauts will never be T-38 aircraft commanders—they will always fly in the rear cockpit as supporting aircrew—but they play a crucial role, working with the pilot in the front cockpit to fly their missions successfully, and most importantly, training to get ready for spaceflight.
There are a few important skills for new crewmembers to learn. First, and paramount, is to sound cool on the radio. There really is nothing worse than someone sounding confused, or scared, or babbling on and on when they try to call the tower for permission to take off. The best advice I gave the new guys was to always sound slightly annoyed that you have to be bothered to even key the microphone to talk. You don’t want to sound arrogant or like a total jerk, but you need to have an “OK, I’ve got things to do and let’s get on with it” tone. Years later a Hollywood producer gave me the same advice when I was doing a voice-over for a video. He told me that I sounded too relaxed, and I needed to be annoyed to sound more cool. Also, new aircrew need to rehearse in their mind what they’re going to say before actually talking. Clear and Concise with a touch of Annoyed is a good formula for success when talking on the radio. In the fighter community we used to joke that if we were about to crash, we would have to sound good, right up until impact. We had a reputation to uphold.
Compared to an F-16 or other, lesser fighters, the T-38 is pretty simple. As a shuttle pilot, I found the Talon to be about as complicated as a single shuttle system. For example, the shuttle’s hydraulic system, or its computers, or its main engines each seemed to be roughly as challenging to master as the overall T-38. Still, I needed to study. Airplane systems. Normal procedures. Emergency procedures. Instrument flight rules and air traffic control procedures. Weather. Survival techniques. There’s about a month of ground school that new guys go through, and annual refreshers for the old guys. Although it’s a simple jet, there’s still a lot to know.
Next comes the flying. You have to get used to strapping yourself to an ejection seat, putting on a helmet that is hard to breathe through, sitting in a 1960s-era cockpit that smells like a combination of jet fuel/dirty laundry/teenager’s room, accelerating your body forward with afterburners, like stepping on the gas pedal, and getting smashed down into the seat when you turn the airplane, like driving fast around a corner, otherwise known as pulling g’s. You have to be able to cover the inside of the canopy with a bag and fly based on instruments only, simulating bad weather. You have to get used to an incredibly high roll rate; the T-38, with its stubby wings, can actually do two complete rolls per second, though I was rarely inclined to do so.
You have to keep track of your gas. “Minimum fuel” is a term used to tell air traffic control that we were out of gas and needed to land ASAP. In the T-38 we used to say that we took off with minimum fuel. Those short wings don’t hold any gas and those 1950s-era jet engines burn a lot of dinosaurs, so you’re aware of—and low on—gas from the minute you take off. What’s more, flying in Texas and the American South means flying around thunderstorms. Lots of them. I remember being taught as a student that there is no peacetime mission that requires flying through a thunderstorm, and based on some of the damage I’ve seen those monstrous storms do, I agree. However, in the summer they’re everywhere, so a lot of your brain cells are taken up with avoiding them while getting to your destination with some gas in the tank.
NASA astronauts fly different T-38 missions, most involving basic navigation to an airport, usually 400 to 600 miles away, doing practice instrument approaches, landing, and then flying back to Ellington Field, our home base in Houston. There are several key criteria to evaluate when selecting which airport to fly to. My top priority was availability of good BBQ or other food—along with minor details such as weather, their ability to service T-38s with the air start unit required to start our jet engines, government contract fuel, a 7,000-foot or longer runway, etc. These out-and-back missions give astronauts a chance to work on soft skills such as crew coordination and situational awareness. Sometimes they go out and do acrobatics, which is somewhat useful to prepare for the sensations of weightlessness, though in truth nothing can fully prepare you for that. During the space-shuttle era we used to fly to Cape Canaveral or out to El Paso and the White Sands Missile Range to do practice shuttle approaches. The main aircraft for this was a modified Gulfstream G2, but we occasionally did these extreme approaches in the T-38, which was similar to a 20-degree dive bomb attack that I used to do in the F-16.
Sometimes, however, things didn’t go as planned. And that’s precisely what makes the T-38 so valuable; shuttle and station training in controlled simulator environments could not put your butt on the line to get the “pucker factor” up. One day when taking off at dawn, I hit a flock of birds, exploding the left engine. I circled back for an emergency landing on the remaining good engine. It was the shortest flight that I’ve ever recorded in my logbook—and probably the most heartbeats per minute of any flight I’ve ever had. I’m still thankful that in my backseat that day I had Ricky Arnold, one of the best mission specialists NASA ever had. One night when I was flying to Midland, Texas, the airport was hit with a rogue haboob dust storm, shutting the airfield down, and we had to fly 100 miles to the next nearest airport, sucking seat cushion through our sphincters and praying, “God, please let us make it to Lubbock.” Guess who was my backseater on that day? His initials are RA.
My flying career is full of stories like these: almost running out of gas in the F-16 at Eglin AFB; finding a runway closed down upon arrival at Tallahassee and barely making it to Tyndall AFB; having my wingman lose his engine while flying over Iraq in the single-engine F-16; almost flying into a mountain on my first-ever LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared at Night) flight—the computer saved my life at the last second; being disoriented and pulling my F-16 straight up at night (thankfully it wasn’t straight down—I’d rather be lucky than good); I could go on and on. I’ve had plenty of close calls during my twenty-seven years of flying fast jets.
Although there is no direct correlation between high-performance aviation and living on the space station for six months, the possibility that some unexplained emergency could strike at any moment is what keeps you on your toes, and that is the best possible mental preparation for spaceflight.
That, and sounding cool on the radio.
(ГОВОРИТЬ ПО РУССКИ)
Learning the Language of Your Crewmates
Most people who get selected to be an astronaut think they’re pretty good at something. The former fighter pilots were the hotshots of their base, the medical doctors were the top of their field (like Goose in ER), the engineers could code better than any of the other engineers in their cubicle farm. But when you get selected as an astronaut you learn a cold, hard truth: Whatever you thought you were good at, there’s someone better.
One skill where I thought I could hold my own was foreign languages. I wasn’t that great, but I did live with a family in Finland as an exchange student in high school. And in college I had minored in French, spending a semester at the French Air Force Academy (l’Ecole de l’Air). Of all the fighter pilots I knew in the Air Force, I was the only one who had that kind of foreign language experience. We all tried to speak German while stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base, but it was absolutely terrible and no real German person could ever understand us; we made up our own words with a ghastly accent. Phrases like das ist so . . . (that is so) . . . or du bist ein . . . (you are a) . . . pretty much summed up the extent of our Deutsch vocabulary. It was so bad. Nonetheless, we did think we were funny and clever . . . and good-looking and humble too.
Then I got to NASA and realized something: There were other astronauts who spoke foreign languages better than I did. At the top of this list and in sole possession of first place was my eventual crewmate on my Expedition 43 space station mission, Samantha Cristoforetti. She spoke English, French, German, Russian, and of course her native Italian, all fluently and with practically no accent. She was like the Pope. After our mission the European Space Agency sent her to China to learn how to fly their spaceship, and also learn Mandarin, only a year after our flight. When I asked her how learning the language was, she replied sheepishly, “Oh, it’s OK, you know, so-so.” Then I saw her give a TV interview in Mandarin on Chinese national television. Unbelievable. Samantha is probably the smartest person I know when it comes to languages. And there are astronauts like her in every field—science, flying, physical fitness, mechanical skills, you name it. Whatever you think you’re good at, there’s someone better.
During our Soyuz rocket launch, Anton said, “Teppи дaй мнe блок yпpaблeния,” or “Terry, give me the control panel.” But блок (block) sounds like сок (sok, or juice). So I gave him a small box of juice from our food rations.
When the space shuttle program ended, we were given two options: a) learn Russian so we could fly on their spaceship, or b) find another line of work. Thinking I was pretty decent when it came to languages, I thought, “How hard can this be?” The short answer is, pretty hard.
Many people think Russian is difficult because of the Cyrillic alphabet, but honestly that really wasn’t a problem. My very first day of Russian-language training was with my instructor and lifelong friend, Waclaw Mucha (pronounced vatslov mooha). At the end of that four-hour class, I had the letters down. It was the next fifteen years of learning nouns and verbs and adjectives and cases that would be much more challenging.
Very few words in Russian match words in English, otherwise known as cognates, though there are a few between Russian and French. For example, the word for beach is the same, plage in French, пляж in Russian. However, some Russian words can be ridiculously long and hard to pronounce. Hello is здравствуйте. That word literally took me five minutes to write out properly. There’s no way to get around the fact that Russian’s Slavic roots make it a tough language to learn because it has very few similarities to English, unlike other Romance or Anglo-Saxon languages.
The first few years studying Russian were especially painful. I had a full-time job and never studied outside of class with Waclaw. My fellow astronaut classmates and I tortured poor Waclaw, asking him to repeat the same word over and over and over in every class. I am sure that I went many months, taking a few hours of lessons each week, learning only a few new words. He had the patience of a saint to put up with my slow learning and Teflon brain. Russian words just never seemed to stick. Finally, after a few years of torture, I had reached a decent level. I learned the six cases (don’t ask, just trust me, if you weren’t born and raised in Russia you’ll never quite get them), learned the twenty-one ways to say the word one, and got to a point where it was actually fun to speak Russian. Eventually, I could watch TV programs and movies— with Waclaw helping me understand each line, getting through five or ten minutes of a show during an hour-and-a-half lesson.
Getting over that hump took years, but then Russian lessons became a lot more fun for both me and poor Waclaw. It was also very important for me to be able to communicate with all of my crewmates in their native language. The Russians cosmonauts I flew with all spoke English very well, better than my Russian, but I took it as a point of pride to be able to get along in their language.
Beyond simply knowing technical language, I tried to learn cultural idioms and expressions and, more important, how to toast in Russian. This was a skill needed at the end of every major training milestone in Star City, our training base near Moscow. Being able to say a few sentences that everyone could understand went a long way in building our international friendship, especially during the very tense years of 2012–2015. I learned several very important skills when it came to toasting. First, when it’s time to drink, don’t completely empty your glass each time. This is especially important for vodka novices. Second, don’t go first. Your toast will be much funnier if you are the fifth person to toast rather than the first!
There are still plenty of opportunities to mess up. During our Soyuz rocket launch, Anton said, “Teppи дaй мнe блок yпpaблeния,” or “Terry, give me the control panel.” But блок (block) sounds like сок (sok, or juice). So I gave him a small box of juice from our food rations. We almost died laughing! This story pretty much sums up my Russian-language skills. I can get along and have a conversation and make friends, but speaking for any length of time will quickly get to something I don’t understand. As long as I can clarify it, I’m fine. But sometimes when you ask for the controls of the spaceship you might get a box of juice instead.
One of my favorite things to do on the space station was to float down to the Russian segment on Friday evenings and hang out with those guys, after the work week was done. We would eat dinner, watch TV, and laugh. We also began a tradition we called “cultural program.” My cosmonaut buddies would teach me expressions that I never learned in class, which provided hours of entertainment. I still remember Anton and Gennady and Misha and Sasha laughing while I learned words you don’t find in textbooks (or mixed company). When we had a good satellite connection, I would use the station’s limited telephone system to call Waclaw, who was usually driving home from the Johnson Space Center in Houston after work by then. “Waclaw, what does xxxxx mean?” He would always crack up, occasionally needing to pull over because he was laughing so hard at what my comrades had taught me. Those Friday evening “cultural programs” were a highlight of my time in space. One expression that my cosmonaut crewmates Anton and Gennady taught me became permanently memorialized on the bulkhead of one of the ISS modules with a Sharpie. We had a mini-ceremony as we penned this expression as motivation for future crews, laughing so hard that we would have fallen over had we not been floating. I can’t repeat it in mixed company, but it basically went something like “They’re hosing us, but we’re getting stronger.” I’ll let you modify the verb.
If you are in an international environment at work or at home, making the effort to learn each other’s language and culture goes a long way, and can help form a lasting bond, even when there are very strong negative external factors threatening the relationship. I’m proud to say that the crew of Expedition 43 was an example of how people from different cultures can get along, work together, and become lifelong friends, even in the face of adversity.
Learning Not to Breathe Too Much CO2
There are a lot of reasons to appreciate Earth. A lot. We have air to breathe and water to drink. Food in abundance. We are protected from cosmic radiation by our planet’s magnetic field. There are about a million laws of nature that are perfectly tuned to make life possible here. Everything about this planet is quite amazing when you think about it.
One of those things is our atmosphere, and its cycle of O2 (oxygen) and CO2 (carbon dioxide). Simply put, animals use O2 and make CO2, and then trees and plants use that CO2 and make O2. What an amazing and perfectly designed life-support system. But when it comes to spaceships, meeting that need for a livable atmosphere requires a huge amount of effort by spacecraft designers, and managing CO2 is a crucial part of that system. Because astronauts make CO2 and there are no trees naturally on board a spaceship to remove it, a functional CO2 removal system is mandatory to prevent the crew from dying within hours.
Because those man-made machines sometimes break down, every astronaut must learn their own personal symptoms for what CO2 exposure feels like. If you were to breathe in too much carbon dioxide, you needed to be aware of it and act before it’s too late. Because of this need for training, NASA came up with a very high-tech, precise system for each new astronaut to learn their individual symptoms.
They put bags over our faces and had us breathe in them until the CO2 built up and we felt dizzy. Yup, I’m not kidding, that’s how I learned what too much CO2 feels like. It worked very well for us, but please don’t try this at home. Under the supervision of our flight surgeon, my STS-130 crew and I all sat around a table, each breathing into a paper lunch bag, staring at each other with steely-eyed determination to outdo the guy next to us. The flight docs admonished, “Hey, this isn’t a competition; just breathe until you feel your symptoms and then be done. There’s no prize for going longest.” Except we’re all astronauts so of course it’s a competition. Between pilot and mission specialist, Air Force and Marines, commander and pilot, there’s always a competition whenever an outcome can be measured!
There we sat staring at each other, eyes glinting, sweat beading on our foreheads, cheeks turning purple, lips blue, eyes darting from one to the next, just exactly like when Alan Shepard and John Glenn and Gordo Cooper calmly stared each other down during their lung capacity test in The Right Stuff. One by one my crewmates pulled the paper bags off their faces, taking a deep gulp of beautiful oxygen. Flight surgeons pleading. Until finally there was only one of us with his face in the bag. I won’t say who the last man standing was, but his initials are TV. Not that anyone was counting. . . .
CO2 actually became an issue for me several times in space. On my shuttle flight, we had been docked to the International Space Station (ISS) for ten days, and when it was time to leave, our whole STS-130 crew crowded back onto Endeavour’s cramped flight deck all at once and closed the hatch between shuttle and station. Suddenly, six people were all breathing out CO2 in the relatively small volume of the shuttle, causing the CO2 level to rapidly rise, and within minutes we all felt our individual symptoms—increased heart and breathing rate, flushed face, tingling lips and fingertips, stuffiness, headache. We joked that it was like being at a NASA meeting at the Johnson Space Center. Houston directed us to install an extra CO2 scrubber (a can of lithium hydroxide that removes CO2 from the air), and almost immediately the symptoms subsided.
During my long-duration flight, the problem of CO2 exposure was more insidious. Our crew size varied between three and six people, depending on the Soyuz rotation schedule, and you could notice the difference when there were three versus six people on board. The CO2 scrubbers did much better when there were fewer bodies making carbon dioxide. Those scrubbers, a combination of American and Russian machines, routinely kept CO2 levels around 3 mm Hg of partial pressure, a level more than ten times as high as it is on Earth. On the long-duration mission it was as though we were frogs slowly boiling in a pot of water, because the CO2 level never abruptly changed as it did on Endeavour—we were just continuously subjected to a slowly changing, yet very high, CO2 soup.
One thing I do know: I kept my head in that bag longer than anyone else. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
It’s safe to say that most crewmembers experience some kind of CO2 symptoms while on a long-duration mission—either headaches, stuffiness, irritability, or what we affectionately call “space brain,” a condition that impedes your ability to think as well as on Earth. Occasionally, when one of the scrubbers broke or a new crew of three astronauts showed up, increasing the CO2 concentration, some folks would experience their CO2 symptoms. One night, I was not able to sleep in my usual sleeping quarters because of a technical problem and had to find a place on the ISS to camp out. I picked the PMM, our storage module. After setting up my sleeping bag and closing my eyes, I began to feel my heart race and lips tingle—my CO2 symptoms. I realized the ventilation in that module wasn’t good enough, and after relocating my sleeping bag several times, I gave up and moved out into the main hallway, Node 1. It was a poignant lesson in the importance of ventilation, because in space there’s no atmospheric circulation without electric fans. Without ventilation an astronaut would create a cloud of CO2 as he breathed, and unless he moved, he would slowly die.
During my mission, we had an emergency that required the crew to use oxygen masks, and when the emergency was resolved we stored the half-empty oxygen bottles, awaiting instructions from Houston for their disposal. We were all elated when they told us to just release the oxygen into the atmosphere; the whole crew lined up to each take a hit from the O2 bottle! You see, that oxygen was an immediate relief from our daily overdose of CO2, and I felt a wave of relief in my brain, while also noticing my vision get a little brighter. Similarly, the spacesuit used for spacewalking has a 100 percent O2 atmosphere. So when you go outside you get a few hours in a much cleaner atmosphere. Though there are many physical demands related to spacewalking, I really enjoyed breathing pure oxygen, if only for a few hours.
No NASA doctor really understands the long-term effects of this level of carbon dioxide exposure because people on Earth are not exposed to anything like it for the length of time that astronauts are, and there isn’t a valid, comprehensive, long-term assessment of astronaut health. There are hypotheses that it could affect vision, cardiovascular health, brain function (early-onset Alzheimer’s?), or who knows what else. In any case, the number of astronauts who fly is so small that most medical studies lack statistical significance.
One thing I do know: I kept my head in that bag longer than anyone else. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
The Vomit Comet
The First Taste of Weightlessness
"There's something intriguing to be learned on practically every page… This book captures the details of an extraordinary job, and turns even the mundane aspects of space travel into something fascinating."
"How to Astronaut is an amusing and enlightening insight into an astronaut's work life.... This is an eye-opening insider's view on what it's really like to be an astronaut: the joys, the dangers, the fear, and the day-to-day reality of it. Virts' writing is humorous, playful, down to earth, and often wise."
"Virts' firsthand accounts are richly detailed and often snort-milk-out-of-your-nose hilarious."
- On Sale
- Sep 15, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Workman Publishing Company