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Astronaut on space station flight: ‘It’s an amazing ride’

Terry W. Virts peered through the space shuttle cockpit window as it thundered off a launch pad on a column of flames, seeing the Earth in a way the Air Force fighter pilot had never before.

“The very first time I saw Earth it was sunrise a few minutes after launch (and) we’re going across the North Atlantic and I remember you see this big blue line before sunrise happens and I can distinctly remembering thinking I’ve never seen that shade of blue,” he said in a telephone interview this week. “It was gorgeous.”

Virts was set to appear 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct.11, at Books & Co. at The Greene to sign autographs for his new book, “VIEW FROM ABOVE: An Astronaut Photographs the World,” released this month by National Geographic. The former astronaut is on a nationwide lecture and book signing tour.

The retired 49-year-old colonel flew aboard the shuttle on the final assembly spaceflight for the massive International Space Station in 2010. In 2014-15, he spent more than 200 days on the spaceship with three Russian cosmonauts, and American and European space travelers after blasting into orbit aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

RELATED: Former shuttle pilot talks about flying in X-15 rocket plane at Air Force museum

Virts first flight into space was unlike any other flight the former F-16 pilot had witnessed.

“It was like I’ve never experienced this before (and) I’ve never experienced this before over and over and over until finally you’re in space floating, which is something else I’ve never experienced before,” he said. “It’s an amazing ride.”

Looking onto the expanse of Earth on a perch hundreds of miles above oceans, forests, deserts, clouds, cities and continents, one view was particularly striking over places like Africa and the Amazon, he said.

“There’s these giant, hundreds of miles long thunderstorms with just lightning bolts probably many times a second, if not tens of times per second flashing,” he said. “It’s like the most powerful thing and on a dark night when there’s no moon it’s really amazing to see this … black hole with this continuous, violent lightning flashing.”

The space-faring crew of six American, Russian and European travelers left geopolitical tensions on Earth in a period when Russia annexed Crimea and international tensions rose over Russia’s alleged military activities in neighboring Ukraine.

“When we were in space it was like we had a mission to do,” he said. “We’ve got to survive. Space is not a friendly place, and we worked well together.”

While in orbit, the Americans sought refuge one day behind closed hatches in the Russian section of the spacecraft. They feared an ammonia leak had spewed toxic fumes that could have potentially ended the space station’s mission, he said.

RELATED: Apollo 13 mission director, three others to enter Aviation Hall of Fame

“The Russian prime minister called us up and said, ‘We’re going to work together, we’re going to get through this together,’” Virts recalled. “In the middle of all these bad things on Earth, there was some pretty great cooperation in space.”

It turned into a false alarm, he said, and the mission flew on.

Virts made a point to have dinner with the cosmonauts daily, and counts them as friends. “It was important to have one crew and not a divided crew,” he said.

Vice President Mike Pence’s recent call to return Americans to the moon and venture to Mars and beyond encouraged Virts on the future of space travel.

RELATED: Pence pledges that U.S. will go to to the moon, Mars and beyond

“The biggest impediment to our space plans is not rocket science, it’s political science and when we change our plans every four years that means you’re never going to get there,” he said. “Once you have that goal, then you can figure out the things you need to do to get there and I think the moon is a great place to test out the technologies that we need to get to Mars.

“It’s not a fully fleshed out plan yet, but it’s a great first step,” said Virts, who left the NASA astronaut corps in 2016.

The Air Force Academy graduate and had dreams since childhood inspired by Apollo moon missions to rocket into space.

“When I was a kid, the first book I ever read was about Apollo,” he said. “I just grew up loving space.”

He’s had a lifelong fascination with photography. While in space, he shared what he photographed on Twitter and Instagram.

“You can see the pictures, but the pictures don’t do it justice until you see it with your own eyes,” he said.

The former astronaut wrote the book to explain what it’s like to be outside the bounds of Earth.

“People around the world are just enthralled and interested in space and unfortunately only a handful of people have ever gotten to go and so one of the things I wanted to do was share the experience,” he said.

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