Former NASA astronaut Terry Virts talks about Antarctica

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Cold, desert, white, dry, isolated, beautiful, harsh, stunning. These are all words former NASA astronaut Terry Virts uses to describe Antarctica.

“But in all honesty, much like the view from outer space, words really don’t do the place justice,” he writes in his blog.

Virts, the author of View From Above, which details his time at the International Space Station (ISS), visited Antarctica at the end of 2017, saying the experience was “nothing short of remarkable”.

“In many ways [it] reminded me of my space flights. We were remote, an international team requiring special gear, and communication was limited,” he says.

“The environment was incredibly hostile and not at all compatible with human life without resupply from the mainland.”

While on the ice, Virts observed rocks that reminded him of the Martian landscape photographed by NASA’s rovers.

He says Antarctica’s frozen or desert terrain is “vaguely similar” to other planetary bodies like Mars. After all, it is cold, icy and rocky. “But most importantly, it is isolated.”

Virts says technology developed for extreme environments such as Antarctica or in space can also have useful applications in other settings. For example, water purifiers developed to be used in space are helping people in Haiti and Africa. 

“The most exciting thing [about the analog between Antarctic extreme environments and space] is that we can actually train for space missions right here on Earth. It’s not a perfect analog but it’s good in many ways.”

Other analogues for space on Earth include “craters and geology in places like Arizona and New Mexico [that] mirror the moon and mars a little bit” and undersea laboratories, which “are a bit like space stations”.

Virts earned a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from the United States Air Force Academy in 1989, and a master of aeronautical science degree in aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

A certified test pilot, he has logged over 5,300 flight hours in more than 40 different aircraft including the F-16 “Viper” and the Space Shuttle.

In 2000, Virts was selected as an astronaut by NASA and in 2010 he made his first spaceflight as pilot of the Space Shuttle Endeavour during a mission to deliver the now-famous Cupola, which provides astronauts with a 360° view of the ISS and our planet, to space. 

In 2014, he launched onboard a Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan and subsequently spent 200 days in space.