I’m one of 4 astronauts in history to have piloted a space shuttle. Here’s what my time in space taught me about making even the most boring tasks extraordinary.

  • Colonel Terry Virts is a former NASA astronaut who’s one of only four astronauts in history to have piloted a Space Shuttle and commanded the International Space Station (ISS).
  • He was featured in the 2016 IMAX film, “A Beautiful Planet,” and is the author of National Geographic’s “View from Above.”
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, “HOW TO ASTRONAUT: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth.”
  • In it, he shares how even the most mundane tasks and training shaped his perspective on life, careers, and relationships on Earth.
  • From checking emails to basic hygiene, Virts explains that no matter how grandeur or mundane the task is, “if you’re going slow, you’re going too fast.”
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Ninety-nine per cent of my time outside during spacewalks was spent working. I almost always had a face full of equipment and station structure, and I was constantly keeping track of gear, tethers, and the to-do list. I have never felt so on-the-clock as I did during my three spacewalks; there was no time to rest or to pause and take photos.

However, during one particular moment on my second EVA, I was at the front of the ISS and had a few seconds to rest. I took that opportunity to rotate my body around and look away from the station and out into space.

‘HOW TO ASTRONAUT: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth,’ by Terry Virts. Courtesy of Workman

What I saw changed my perspective on life.

There was the most gorgeous sunrise, stretching from horizon to horizon and filling my field of view, beginning as an intense blue to the right and morphing into distinct lines of orange and red and pink.

Below was the Earth, black as coal. Above was infinity, blacker than the darkest night you’ve ever seen.

The only sound I heard was the faint, high-pitched whine of the spacesuit fan, and my own breathing, and for a few glorious seconds it was just me and the universe. I felt like I was seeing God’s view of creation, something that humans were not meant to see, and I could hear Him tell me, “I am.”

That’s all, just “I am.”

Adjectives have not been invented to adequately describe this moment, so I won’t torture our language by trying, but you can do your best to imagine.

And then I had to get back to work; there was a power cable that needed to be connected to a cable tray on PMA-2 that would eventually be connected to the capsule docking ring.

You get the point.

That moment was a microcosm of my seven months in space.

A continuous juxtaposition of the sublime and the mundane, from those first eight and a half minutes during Endeavour‘s launch to the end of my 200-day mission, 99% of my time was spent repairing equipment and storing gear and putting grease on bolts and running on a treadmill. And 1% of it was spent hearing from God and seeing creation from a perspective that I’d never thought possible.

So if you’re planning a spacewalk, remember these things: Keep track of your tethers. Don’t bobble the grease tool. Rotate the hatch knob counterclockwise to shut it. Take a few minutes to look out into the universe and hear from God. Water doesn’t fall down in space.

And above all — if you’re going slow, you’re going too fast.

Excerpted from “How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts” (Workman). © 2020.

Terry Virts photo credit Jack Robert Photography
Terry Virts. Jack Robert Photography

Colonel Terry Virts (retired) was selected by NASA for the space shuttle program in 2000, and was the pilot of STS-130 mission aboard space shuttle Endeavour. In March 2015, Virts assumed command of the ISS, where he spent over 200 days. Virts is one of the stars (and photographers) of the IMAX film A Beautiful Planet, released in April 2016. He is also the author of View From Above (National Geographic, 2017). Visit him online at terryvirts.com and follow him on Instagram @astro_terry, on Twitter @AstroTerry, and on Facebook @astrovirts.