Terry Virts is the most prolific photographer in the history of space travel. He’s shot more than 300,000 images during his two spaceflights, a two-week mission on board the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2010 and 200-plus days on the International Space Station in 2014-2015, which included three spacewalks. He’s also shot terabytes of video, some for the eye-boggling IMAX film “A Beautiful Planet.”
In addition to his dramatic images, his book, View From Above, published by National Geographic, has nail-biting stories about his experiences circling the globe, including an emergency exit into the Russian side of the space station to the sound of warning bells resonating throughout the American sector.
Digital Photo Pro: Was photography an official part of your missions or did NASA allow you to pursue your passion in space?
Terry Virts: The thing about being an astronaut [is] you’re not a specialist. On the shuttle, I was the pilot as well as a robotics guy and a photo/TV guy. When I first showed up on the space station, I was a flight engineer, then halfway through, the old commander left, and I became commander. But everybody has to do everything.
The cargo ships would bring up stuff, and I would track everything on an Excel spreadsheet. Also, we had 250 science experiments. And every astronaut is a photographer to a certain extent, and we all get training.
There are always technical pictures. But 99 percent of the time, it was a labor of love because of my passion for photography. The subject matter is pretty spectacular in space, so I wanted to take advantage of that.
Does NASA have an official photography program?
They do. There are around six people in what they call the Photography/TV group. A lot of the training has to do with how to take pictures in the unique environment of space because the lighting is so extreme.
We used to have Hasselblads when I first got to NASA, which was wonderful. They would let us check it out to practice on Earth so we could get good at it.
Then, there’s the video part, and the system on the space shuttle was super complicated, this kludge of 1970s wiring and digital cameras.
What cameras are being brought up now and what modifications are done to make them space-worthy?
The mainstay of the NASA program is now the Nikon D5 DSLR, although when I was up there it was the D4.
In the past, there was a change in lubricants, but it was determined that the modification is no longer needed. They did modify one of the Nikons–I think it was the D2–to take imagery in the near IR by having the IR filter removed from the chip.
There are also probably 20 Canon XF305 cameras on board for video.
Every module has one of them stuck to a wall with a cable running out linking video down to the ground. Then, they have a few free-floating ones that you can shoot with. When I was there, I was fortunate to shoot footage for DP James Neihouse for the IMAX film “A Beautiful Planet,” including a sequence of stills at four frames a second using the Canon EOS-1D C DSLR that was converted into 24-frames-per-second video. We also used a Canon EOS C500. For the IMAX project, they had hard drives that we would fill up and send back down to Earth on a cargo ship.
We also had the first-ever RED Dragon on board. But they warned us, “The files are too big, be careful what you shoot, we’ll never be able to downlink it,” since bandwidth is pretty limited. After a few months, I got the RED out, which at the time was the first 4K in space, and spent a whole weekend shooting a terabyte of video.
With the Nikons, I would shoot in RAW, plus JPEG to a CF card, then download and transmit RAW images and use the JPEGs for social media from space.
What lenses did you have on the space station to work with for your still photography?
Four or five prime NIKKOR lenses, as well as an 8mm fish-eye and an 800mm and a teleconverter. Also, I used a 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 14-24mm f/2.8 and 17-35mm f/2.8 zooms, among others.
How did you record your spacewalks?
It was hard to use the Nikon D2 with pressurized gloves on, but the protective thermal blanket container that you put the camera in had a bigger shutter button on it to depress.
There was a little LED light on the back that came on showing a busy signal, so you could tell that it worked.
We also had a GoPro, which was actually owned by the Russians. They built a box—a thermal blanket for it to protect it in case it got too crazy hot or cold. It also kept it pressurized.
I borrowed it from the Russians for all three of my spacewalks. Toni Myers, the director of “A Beautiful Planet,” put together a really nice montage of my spacewalking just with a GoPro. We also had a Ghost that could fit in your palm but is really high quality and could do time-lapse, stills or video.
Are you weightless the whole time you’re circling around the Earth?
From the moment the engines shut down! You launch, and then eight-and-a-half minutes later the engines shut down, and you’re in space. When you come back to Earth—on my last flight it was 200 days later—as soon as you hit the atmosphere, you start feeling gravity again.
Once you’re in orbit on the space station, how fast are you traveling and how does that affect your shutter speed when you want to freeze an image of the Earth?
It’s about 17,500 miles an hour. In daylight, it’s not a problem, you’re a few hundred miles away. If you were a mile away, it would be nothing but blur. So in daylight, your shutter speeds are 1/500th or a 1/1000th of a second at 100 or 200 ISO.
It depends on what you’re shooting and what your aperture is. I will say this: During the day, it’s the brightest bright you’ve ever seen, and at night, it’s the darkest dark you’ve ever seen. So you have to push the ISO.
A lot of my Nikon stuff was ISO 6400. On the Canons, I would often use ISO 10,000. You need to get city lights, the aurora or stars. Even at those speeds, you have to slow your shutter speed down as well as use a fast prime lens pretty wide open. You’re down to a 1/15th or a 1/8th of a second. The camera is on a bracket, so you’re not tracking the target. All those parameters are on the edge of blur.
What type of window were you shooting through when you weren’t out on a spacewalk?
The Russians have pure glass on their side, but they don’t protect them very well, so they are super scratched up. The U.S. segment has two different windows. The one in the lab is a window made of pure scientific-grade glass. Whenever you’re down in that lab window area, you have to wear a mask. We go to a lot of effort to protect it. There’s a cover on the outside that you only open up when you’re actually taking pictures so that the fuel from cargo ships or little meteorites flying around out there doesn’t scratch it up.
The cupola is a module I installed on my STS-130 shuttle flight in 2010, and it’s got seven windows. Frankly, it’s the coolest place in space! It also has covers, but usually, we leave them open all day.
Did you get motion sickness?
I think everybody feels bad the first day or two you’re in space, either dizzy, have motion sickness or your back hurts because you’re stretching out. My first two days, I had a raging headache. But after a couple of days, everybody adjusts and gets better.
How do you photograph inside the space station? What’s the Kelvin temperature in there?
We have a Nikon Speedlight and also battery-powered Litepanels that were used in constructing the portable light we call “bricks” because of their size and shape. The U.S. segment was roughly 5500K, and the Russian segment was roughly 3700K.
Did you ever see anything going by that couldn’t be explained?
Not really. But I did see amazing things that I never knew existed on Earth or in space.
For instance, over the planet, there’s a thing called airglow. It sort of looks like an aurora, but it’s not. It’s just that the normal high upper-level atmosphere sometimes has this thin uniform straight green glow to it.
When you get to the Northern Lights or the Southern Lights, where the magnetic poles are—then that’s the aurora, that green is from the sun’s radiation getting funneled through the magnetic field down into our atmosphere. At higher levels, those auroras are also white/red streaks. I never realized there were different colors there.
Here’s something else I discovered: As you go around the Earth, during the day you see a thin blue line, which is our atmosphere. But at night, it’s about five times as thick and brown, with a little green line at the top. It turns out the atmosphere goes up really high, like a hundred miles, but it becomes really thin. However, during the day, you can’t see it.
How many miles above Earth were you and how do you stay in orbit after turning the engines off?
Mr. Isaac Newton! Once you’re moving, unless something pushes on you, your motion is not going to change. There’s such a small amount of air, it barely impacts anything. We just floated in our orbit roughly 250 miles above Earth.
Can you see manmade structures such as China’s Great Wall?
You can’t see the Great Wall because of pollution. The only form that really stuck out during the day was Buenos Aires and Montevideo on a bay on the east coast of South America. At nighttime, you see city lights. One of the profound things that I never realized until I thought about it is that when you see those city lights, you’re not seeing population, you’re seeing wealth.
Where did you see the most wealth?
Western Europe, the East Coast of America, East Asia from Thailand through Japan. There’s a lot of economic activity going on down there. I think the most profound picture I took from space was of North and South Korea at night. Some people live in the light. Some people live in the dark.
What final thoughts do you have on this project?
The main thing about photography is that it’s the artistic side of space flight, and it’s the way to capture spaceflight for people on Earth. When I went to the Air and Space Museum for the grand opening of “A Beautiful Planet,” the director there told me that a million people were going to see that movie. They’ll be showing it for years. So, in my mind, it was the most important and useful thing I did because so many people will get to see it. The technical stuff is great, but I think the human element is most important. Photography was my vehicle to share the story with folks.