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Astronaut Terry Virts On Perspective, Politics And Our Beautiful Planet

'Sometimes you need to hear what you don’t want to hear just to learn other viewpoints or find out what’s going on in the world.'

17/11/2016 12:53 PM AEDT | Updated 17/11/2016 5:06 PM AEDT
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Terry Virts/NASA

NASA Astronaut Terry Virts is one of only four astronauts ever to pilot the NASA space shuttle, fly on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, perform space walks and hold the role of Commander of the ISS. Not a bad resume, huh?

He also spent over 200 days in space at the International Space Station (ISS) and took more photos of Earth from space than any other astronaut. It's fair to say he knows a thing or two about not sweating the small stuff. Because, as his pictures show, we are the small stuff.

The Huffington Post Australia caught up with Virts on his first trip Down Under to talk about, well, everything. From perspective to politics, mental health to social media and what it's like working with Russians.

Has anything on Earth changed your perspective?

I've been asked every question but I've never been asked that. I had a chance to go to Harvard business school and we were in the amazing cafeteria and I said 'there are probably 2 - 3 billion people on Earth who have never and will never once in their lifetime, eat the meal that we're eating right now'.

During the day you can't see much human activity, but during the night you can and what you really see is wealth.

What about Space?

One of the main things was wealth. During the day you can't see much human activity, but during the night you can and what you really see wealth. It's clear that some parts of the Earth are wealthy and some parts are not. Not in any way do I think we should take from 'here' and give to 'there', but I think we should raise 'there' and that will help everyone.

It was particularly interesting to compare North Korea to South Korea.

How do you keep your perspective in check day-to-day?

We have so many things -- email, your schedule, your relationships, stress and disasters -- so I can just close my eyes and see space and the amazing sunset that I saw so many times and think 'OK, there's been a billion of these sunsets. There's going to be a billion more and so whatever this stress is will go away and in the big scheme of things it's not that important'. Not to think in any way that we're meaningless, but just to realise that the problems that we have are probably not as big of a deal as we think they are.

What effect has social media had on our perspective?

It fragments our society and you can see that in elections across the U.S. and Europe. In the 60s or 70s there were only a few media channels. But now, you hear what you want to hear and it reinforces the views that you already have.

Sometimes you need to hear what you don't want to hear just to learn other viewpoints or find out what's going on in the world.

It used to be that everyone had a common reference frame and now our reference frames are diverging and it's harder to see each other's point of view than ever before. If you like space, you hear about space all the time. You follow me on Twitter and get space.com updates in your Facebook feed. And if you don't like space you have no idea there's even a space station up there because you're watching fashion news, or something else.

Sometimes you need to hear what you don't want to hear just to learn other viewpoints or find out what's going on in the world.

How did you keep your mental health in check while in space?

It's super important because I was there for 200 days in this can. There's places you can go, but I couldn't just walk outside. My mentality was 'I'm going to enjoy space while I'm here. I'm going to have the rest of my life on Earth to do what I want to do. But while I'm here I'm going to enjoy it' so that was the most important thing, just having that attitude.

A tribute to #42 Jackie Robinson today

A photo posted by Terry Virts (@astro_terry) on

They would also send movies or TV programs and on weekends I'd have video conferences with people and family, there were ways to stay connected.

That attitude was key to having a good 200 days, because some people get up there and they can't wait to get back. My mission actually got extended by a month because a Russian rocket blew up in between two American rockets blowing up and it delayed my replacement crew. We were literally stuck in space and we didn't know when we were coming back to Earth. But we had a great attitude, so we did fine.

What's it like working with Russians?

This was one of my biggest points in space, because you've got the Russians and they're one of our biggest partners on the space station. While I was in training the Ukrainian Civil War happened with the help of Russia, and as we were launching, Russia annexed Crimea. My crewmate, Anton who is from Sevastopol, is like the hero of Crimea.

We had to worry about practical things, not politics, and we got along great.

While we were in space the U.S. and the West imposed sanctions on Russia, and all of these significant world events were happening and in the midst of that we had to work together, because we're in this tube and on the other side of that is instant death.

We had to worry about practical things, not politics, and we got along great. So we became friends and worked together well while our governments sucked. We do a lot of science in the space station, but I think the most important part is the international relations.

It's kind of amazing what you can achieve when you work together instead of compete with one another.

Right. Unfortunately it's good domestic politics to bash each other. Hillary was a big anti-Russia person and of course the Russians love it when Putin 'stands up to the West' so in general it's an incentive system to pin countries up against one another instead of working together. It would be much better for us to work together, but that's not the way politicians who are worried about the next two-year election cycle think.

In general, when it comes to politics, I try to take the 500-year view. In 500 years, is this stuff going to matter?

Has your view on politics changed dramatically since spending 200 days in space?

In general, when it comes to politics, I try to take the 500-year view. In 500 years, is this stuff going to matter? Communism and democracy changed the course of human history, and printing a bible changed all of Western civilisation. So those are the kinds of things that people will still be talking about in 500 years. Not most of the silliness we talk about now. So I think it gave me the 500-year view instead of the next-election-cycle view.

What about other world events?

In space it kind of didn't matter. If something happened on Earth it would have no effect on us at all. Interestingly, if you think about 9/11, unless you lived in New York City you would have never known about that had it not been the lead story 24/7 for so many years. 3,000 people died which is horrendous but, for example, in Texas they have these billboards that show you how many people have died on the roads. And about 3,000 people have died on the roads in Texas every year, so we have a 9/11 every year in the state of Texas but you guys don't write about it.

These stories that we think are really big, and 9/11 was a really big story, in all honestly nobody would have ever even known about it had it not been for the news cycle.

Does the media have a responsibility to contextualise these events?

It's fine to report a story, but you should also put it in perspective. Usually, these stories aren't in perspective and the whole world is on fire and everybody is going to die because of ISIS, except that we're not. It sucks if you're in Syria and those people definitely need help, but most of the world is fine.

Nuclear war between America and Russia, on the other hand, is really big news. That might end human civilisation so that needs to be handled as adults.

What about the U.S. election?

Our presidential election is the perfect example. Half of America felt like they wanted to not have another establishment politician. It wasn't like 10 percent of America. Most of that half might not have even really liked him, but they were so fed up with establishment politicians they went ahead and pulled the lever.

The reality is, not everything about Donald Trump is evil and Hillary Clinton is not the most evil human of all time.

Our media in the U.S. has become cheerleaders, or nothing but critics. The reality is, not everything about Donald Trump is evil and Hillary Clinton is not the most evil human of all time.

What about the environment?

People ask astronauts 'what's your favourite planet?' and it's not Mars or Jupiter, it's Earth. We have everything we need to survive right here. In saying that, when I tried to film Beijing I never could because all you could see was smog. And in the Amazon you can see deforestation. So there's some man made environmental messes you can see from space. But 99 percent of the planet really does look beautiful, it's not all doom and gloom. You can have success and fix problems.

Terry starred in the IMAX film, A Beautiful Planet, which is now showing in Australia. He was in Australia for School Of Life talks around perspective and appearances at Wired for Wonder.

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