Former ISS Commander Terry Virts: “The new Apollo needs to be energy”
Good Clean Energy is a podcast that tackles one of the most existential questions of our time: how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Jim McNiel dives into deep conversations with experts ranging from scientists to innovators to changemakers about the challenges our current electricity systems face and updates on the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.
On this episode, Jim is joined by Col. Terry Virts, former NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, to talk about how Virts’ time in space has shifted his perspective and what’s next for space travel.
- Getting to clean, abundant energy for all will take an “all-of-the-above” approach when it comes to technology.
- The International Space Station is still worth it for the science, the engineering and the foreign affairs aspects, Virts said.
- Solving the challenges of getting to Mars will help push all science forward.
“What hit me was at nighttime when you’re seeing these city lights, it’s not just population, it’s wealth,” he said. “And so I realized that you could see politics from space.”
Virts, who now hosts “Down to Earth with Terry Virts,” said that while the United States needs to start breaking apart in its scientific partnership with Russia, the ISS has still been crucial to science, engineering and foreign affairs in the last few decades. “It’s probably the most important foreign policy initiative since the Marshall Plan that we’ve had.”
As far as getting to clean energy, Virts believes we need to focus on smarter ways to abate carbon emissions, and that means investing in superior technology solutions.
“The new Apollo needs to be energy…And I think fusion’s a big part of it,” Virts said. “My view from space was seeing that firsthand. In every way, if you can get clean, abundant energy, human life is better.”
Jim McNiel: In New York City is the Hayden Planetarium. It’s the home of a Zeiss camera. It’s one of the largest star projectors in the world. These are the most amazing transportation devices you can ever imagine. You kick back in this reclined chair and you look up at the dome, and then the next thing you know, you’re flying through space.
You’re flying into the universe that’s filled with 200 billion trillion stars — 200 billion trillion suns with their own solar systems, their own satellites, their own planets. It makes you feel…small. Oh wait, correct that. It makes you feel infinitesimal to be such a tiny little thing. I mean, to put this in perspective, the planet Earth can fit into our local star a million times.
Our sun represents 98.6% of all the matter in our solar system. We could fit 21 septillion human beings into the sun. I mean, think about this: 21 septillion humans in the sun. I mean, that’s how big it is, and that’s how small we are.
Virtually every astronaut since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin has talked about what’s been dubbed the “overlook experience” — the feeling you get when you’re floating in space thousands of miles away from your home. And you see things differently. You understand viscerally how incredibly small you are, how fragile our planet is, and it makes you want to do something about it.
In Good Clean Energy, we typically explore the various ways in which we can produce electricity. We talk to experts, scientists, professionals, researchers, academicians. Today we’re doing something different. We’re talking to somebody who’s escaped Earth’s gravity and seen the world through a different lens.
We’re talking to retired Col. Terry Virts, the former commander of the International Space Station. My name is Jim McNiel, and this is Good Clean Energy.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Terry Virts: Yeah. My first flight on the shuttle was about two weeks, and my second flight was about 200 days, so a little over seven months total.
McNiel: I’m sure people have asked you this before, but what’s your take on the overlook effect?
Seeing international politics from space
Virts: I think it depends on the person. I think for me, I came away from my space travel a lot less black-and-white. I can kind of see a lot of shades of different issues and my perspective. I remember one day looking at the planet and it just hit me that, man, Earth has been around for a long time and it’s gonna be there for a long time. The sky is falling every day on Twitter, you know, like there’s some evil disaster about to explode the whole universe every day if you follow social media. And the reality is it’s not. Things are probably not as bad as we think, and they’re also probably not as good as you think when things are going well.
So, I guess I came away with that long-term, big picture. I had this, I guess, experience. It was probably my fifth day in space. I was looking out and I realized that you can’t see people during the daytime. You really see them at nighttime and city lights, but during the day, you really don’t notice that there’s people there right away. What hit me was at nighttime when you’re seeing these city lights, it’s not just population, it’s wealth. And so I realized that you could see politics from space. Like you could see western Europe, lots of lights, lots of people, a wealthy place. Central Africa — a billion people, but no lights. You could see Johannesburg, and Cape Town’s a little dot down there. Johannesburg’s big, but in between it, there’s a billion people with no lights. And so it just hit me that the way we live on this planet depends on our governments. I mean, there are some governments that are not perfect, but they’re reasonably democratic. They reasonably want to promote human rights and life is good if you live there. There’s other governments like Russia and China and a lot of corrupt governments in Africa where life is a disaster if you live there.
“What hit me was at nighttime when you’re seeing these city lights, it’s not just population, it’s wealth. And so I realized that you could see politics from space.”
Virts: That’s the biggest one. When you’re talking about this effect, it is stark. South Korea is this giant, bustling, booming, modern country, and North Korea is just a black hole with a little white dot where Pyongyang is at nighttime. It’s really stark.
McNiel: Let’s use the Space Station as kind of a lens in order to understand energy. I mean, when you’re up there, you have life support, you have food, you have heat, you have light, and you even have radio communications. But it’s gotta feel very, very, tenuous. I mean, are you concerned about things going wrong when you’re floating in space?
Virts: So I think one of the advantages is I’m a test pilot, a fighter pilot by background. And in that profession you have to be able to not be worried about emergencies all the time. But we went through a phase, it was about a month where the alarm was going off constantly for different things. False fire alarms, just equipment breaking. SpaceX, they don’t radiation-harden their computers, so the SpaceX computer was giving us alarms all the time when radiation would hit it. We had an ammonia leak. I wrote a book called
“A View from Above,” it’s a NatGeo photo book. The middle chapter of that book is about this ammonia emergency that we had. We thought the Space Station was gonna die. The Russians, they had some old fire alarms and they had false alarms all the time.
Experiencing international politics in space
McNiel: Well, how is this even continuing? You know, this joint effort with the Russians at the ISS? It seems almost impossible given the current political circumstances.
Virts: On the one hand, we’re married and you have to stay married for the kids. We’re attached, right? The Russian segment is attached. We can’t operate the station in the long-term without the Russian thrusters. We had a propulsion module that had thrusters, but we canceled it about 20 years ago. We said, “Oh, we got the Russians. We don’t need that.” And they can’t operate their station without ours. And so if we’re gonna continue to operate the station, at least for the next year or so, we could build our own propulsion module and just be independent. It’s not rocket science, it just takes a little bit of will.
McNiel: Well, it is rocket science.
“I find it morally reprehensible that we’re actively cooperating with a government that’s committing genocide and war crimes in Europe. We can’t just completely break apart, but we need to start to disengage.”
Virts: This guy, Frank Rubio that’s up there right now, launched on a Soyuz a few months ago — six months into the war. And I find it morally reprehensible that we’re actively cooperating with a government that’s committing genocide and war crimes in Europe. We can’t just completely break apart, but we need to start to disengage. It’s like in 1943 going on this arctic expedition with German scientists. I’m sure there were good, nice German scientists, but you just can’t do that in 1943. And Putin has turned 2023 into 1943.
McNiel: He has, he certainly has. I guess the big question as a taxpayer — and also by the way, I’m super pro-space. My father was in the space program, he was part of the Apollo program, he was a programmer. So I’m very pro-space. To the average taxpayer in America, is it worth it? What are we getting out of the ISS?
Virts: So there’s three things you get out of the ISS. The science: The mission of the space station is science. The reason why these 15 nations came together in the ‘90s to build the ISS was to do science. And so there’s been lots of science done. All kinds of universities and PhDs and investigators have done all kinds of science experiments. The other one is engineering. Just like, can you build and operate? Can you work with Europeans and Russians and Japanese? So that engineering-side of space exploration is interesting. But in my mind, the biggest thing is the foreign affairs aspect of this space station; it’s probably the most important foreign policy initiative since the Marshall Plan that we’ve had. And it was something that we could work with Russians during some really tough years. They invaded Crimea, annexed Crimea, invaded the Donbas, started a war there. We put sanctions on them. And yet we were still working on the space station.
Getting to clean, abundant energy will take an “all-of-the-above” approach
McNiel: If we took a similar approach to solving the energy challenges that we have today. I know that the Apollo program was roughly $25 billion in ‘60s dollars, or like $250 billion today, 400,000 employees, and we put a man on the moon in nine years-time. Right. It was pretty amazing.
Virts: It was amazing.
McNiel: If we applied that to our current pursuit of fusion, what do you think
“The new Apollo needs to be energy.”
Virts: The new Apollo needs to be energy, I think. And I think fusion’s a big part of it. I’m a big fan of the all-of-the-above technique. I think a lot of the money that we spend is not necessarily the most efficient. I work for an energy company part-time, helping them with their energy transition technology. So carbon capture is a big part of that. They have wind and solar technologies. They have a small nuclear program. There’s a lot of different technologies out there, but I think we need to step back and think from scientific — what’s your return on investment? You can spend a lot of money to make a very marginal gain. And that’s what we’re doing with climate change right now. We’re spending a huge amount of money to maybe take a few percent off of our emissions. While at the same time, China is just dramatically expanding and India, especially the amount of coal power plants they have. And so I had a guy on my “Down to Earth with Terry Virts” podcast, a super smart guy, Mark Mills, he made the point that our emissions peaked in like 2005. So we’ve been slowly coming down in America since 2005. In the last year, the number of coal plants alone that China has built has outdone and overcome the benefits that we’ve had over the last decade, of all these hundreds of billions of dollars we’re spending.
McNiel: Oh yeah. The reduction in carbon production in the United States is substantially outweighed by the production of carbon in China.
Virts: And India.
McNiel: And India. Yeah.
Virts: So I think we need to just recognize that. We’re not gonna change it. China’s not gonna listen to us. China has five times as many people as we do, and a lot of them are extremely poor and that’s not moral. We can’t just say, “Hey, you guys keep on living on a dollar a day and be poor.”
McNiel: Yeah, and you can’t do that for India or Africa either, you know?
Virts: Exactly. And so we need to figure out, the reality is this is gonna happen. So are there smarter ways to abate carbon? I think there are. I think land usage is a really smart way. There’s some types of carbon capture that are very efficient and there’s some that are wildly inefficient.
When I was a kid, I was a nerd. I was really into energy. And I remember I wrote my term paper my junior year about this. And I remember a book that said we were gonna be out of crude oil by the ‘70s, and it was already the ‘80s, so the textbook was a little bit dated. But I was really fascinated by nuclear power. And I’ve always been a big fan of nuclear power. I think we make decisions based on ideology and emotion and not science. And let’s look at Europe. Germany had an amazing system of German-made nuclear power plants. They said, “Oh my God, there’s Fukushima.” Well, A), the disaster in Fukushima killed all those people because of the tsunami, not because of the nuclear power plant. And B), had they just put the generator on top of the building and not down where all the water floods in, there wouldn’t have been any nuclear problem. And the people weren’t killed by the nukes, they were killed because there’s a tsunami. So the German power plants don’t have tsunamis, they don’t have earthquakes. It’s Germany, not Japan. And it was fine. But instead, they shut them all down. They became dependent on — Czechoslovakia had a Chernobyl model 1A nuclear reactor. So they were buying power from the Chernobyl-version reactor instead of the safe German ones.
McNiel: Yeah, which, how does that make sense? I’m gonna shut down my own nuke and buy power from another nuke?
“I think we make decisions based on ideology and emotion and not science.”
Virts: They became dependent on Russian gas. And by the way, the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröeder, went to be on the board and run the Russian. So there’s some serious corruption questions there. Like the former president of Germany was running the Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline. And then the other thing they became dependent on is wind and solar, which is China. And so they went from being self-reliant to being dependent on a Russian dictator and a Chinese dictator. And when you talk wind and solar, that also means batteries. And all of those materials and technologies are basically all made or largely made in China. They’re mined in Africa with very environmentally terrible plans.
McNiel: And labor practices.
Virts: And labor practices are slavery. It’s modern-day slavery. And the materials are processed in coalfire Chinese factories. And so let’s just open our eyes.
“If you can get clean, abundant energy, human life is better.”
McNiel: I think that it’s naive for us, or actually it’s just idiotic, for us not to continue to pursue superior forms of energy. Your point about fission is well-taken. You know, the thing is, right now to go to small modular reactors, to go to deep geothermal, to go to fusion — they’re all kind of on the same timeframe. And that’s why we need to invest in all of those.
Virts: Right, I agree. And geothermal is an amazing technology. The company I’m working for, NOV, they make drilling equipment. So you can either drill for oil and gas or you can drill for heat, which is what geothermal is. And there’s some big technology challenges, but if you can overcome them, that’s a pretty abundant source of heat, which can be turned into electricity or heat.
McNeil: There’s a lot of near-surface stuff, which obviously we’re using already in Italy and Iceland and New Zealand and in the Western United States and so forth. Yeah, I think that’s something we definitely need to invest in. We really need to think about a technology solution for providing abundant, cheap energy for everyone because energy and poverty are really closely connected.
Virts: My view from space was seeing that firsthand. In every way, if you can get clean, abundant energy, human life is better.
What’s next in space exploration technology
Virts: There’s different types of propulsion. Chemical propulsion, which is what we use now, you burn a fuel and that goes out the backend at a certain speed. The best chemical reaction there is is hydrogen and oxygen, which is what the space shuttle used. NASA’s new SLS rocket uses that, liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen. And that’s just limited to only so fast. You just physically — it’s impossible to go any faster than that. There’s electric propulsion where you take an electric field and you accelerate gas like hydrogen or xenon or argon or there’s different gasses you can shoot out the backend. And then you can go two or three or five times faster, you can definitely go faster. And I think that’s what we need to get to Mars — some type of electric propulsion. There are different types, but if you have a nuclear reactor, the problem is with the electric propulsion that most satellites, a lot of satellites use these for station keeping in Earth orbit. They’re very small kilowatts or watts and you can put a very small amount of thrust that can help maneuver a small satellite and keep it in the orbit it wants. But if you want to move a massive, hundreds-of-ton human spaceship, which is what we require, you need a fusion reactor or a fission reactor. And then the other thing is you can use, like from the nuclear reaction itself, the nuclear thermal reactor or rocket that NASA is working on right now, I think in conjunction with DARPA, uses the fission, right, like a plutonium rod or whatever, it gets super hot and that heats up the hydrogen or argon or whatever gas and shoots the gas out that way.
Space travel is the ultimate, really hard problem, so it forces some serious innovation if you want to accomplish new and bigger things. The ultimate rocket is a photon rocket because like I said, your speed forward depends on the speed of your exhaust. So by shooting light — believe it or not, photons have momentum. So just turning a flashlight on in space will eventually move it. There’s some momentum from those photons going out, but that’s a long way in the future.
Buzz Aldrin wrote a really cool book, and I forgot what it was called. This was in the ‘90s. It was about a trip to Alpha Santori, the nearest star system, a few lightyears away. And they had acceleration of like 3Gs or 5Gs or something for a month. So they had to take this special — basically they put their bodies in water because water is a great G-suit because as you get accelerated, the water gets accelerated and it uniformly presses on you to preserve you while you’re under a g-force. But the problem with that, you don’t, for these other propulsion ideas like electric propulsion or fusion or whatever, that you don’t get a lot of acceleration. But what you get is constant force forever. And so the electric propulsion idea to go to Mars, the spaceship would have a very small force pushing on it for several months. And then when you get going really fast, and then when you get halfway there, you turn around and you decelerate for the second half of the mission. And you can get to Mars with nuclear fission. So just a reactor making electricity in just a couple of months rather than–
McNiel: Yeah, I think it’s like 90 days is the estimate.
Virts: It’s something like that. But what it allows you to do, while you’re getting there, Earth and Mars are going around the sun, right? So if you can get there, spend a month and get back, you can do that in a year. If you use a normal chemical rocket, it’s gonna take you so long to get there, you have to wait for Earth and Mars to go around the sun again. And it ends up being a three-year mission.
McNiel: And then you’ve got issues with fuel, right? You have to be able to manufacture fuel on Mars, don’t you, to be able to get back?
Virts: Well, there’s that. Which is why, frankly, the BE-4, the new Bezos, Blue Origin Engine, Falcon, they’re using methane as their fuel, which is a great fuel, but you can make methane on Mars with something called a Sabatier reaction. It’s basic chemistry. We made it on the space station as part of our carbon-dioxide scrubbing. You can make that on Mars. But then the problem with that is, and people talk about, “Well, there’s water on the moon and you can use the water as a rocket fuel.” That’s true. But you have to build the Kennedy Space Center on the moon. You have to build landing pads and launching pads and propellant storage and propellant production and cleaning.
And at $1 million a pound, it would be expensive to build the Kennedy Space Center on another planet.
“At $1 million a pound, it would be expensive to build the Kennedy Space Center on another planet.”
Virts: Well, that’s a good point. So you need nuclear power, it could be fusion or fission, but you need electricity both for your propulsion system, but also for the people. Solar power is great on the space station because you’re always in the sun — mostly, sometimes you’re at nighttime and you have batteries, but you can have batteries for 30 minutes while, you know, while the station is in darkness around the Earth. But on Mars, it’s a 24-hour day. So depending on your latitude, you’re in darkness for 10, 15, 20 hours if you’re far north. And on the moon you’re in darkness for two weeks.
Virts: Yeah, it takes a month for the moon to go around the Earth. So two weeks you’re in sunlight and two weeks you’re in darkness. And so you have to have nuclear power on–
McNiel: You have to have baseload power.
Virts: Or, or hydro which, you know–
McNiel: How are you gonna do hydro on the moon?
Virts: Or natural gas, right? Or, but we’re not gonna find a coal power plant on the moon.
McNiel: Well, how do you make oxygen at the ISS and how do you make it on,
on the moon?
Virts: So at the ISS you make oxygen — basically, you bring it from Earth, either as oxygen or as water, and you can split water by electrolysis. You just run electricity through water and it turns into H2 and O2. And we recycle humidity. So just like breathing out–
McNiel: Capture the water vapor?
Virts: People make humidity. The Russian segment, and the American segment does that, and the American segment has a special system that recycles urine, so you get water out of the urine. And so it’s not 100% recycling, but it’s, I don’t know, 90% or, you know, it recycles a lot.
McNiel: But you still need a supply line, and the same thing would be true for the moon, right? You’d need to deliver the raw materials required to make O2?
A day in the life in space
McNiel: So what’s a day in the life like when you’re up there? I mean, how do you just go through the normal functions of space? You know, how do you take care of your morning business, get your cup of coffee, how do you sleep in zero gravity?
Virts: Well, I’ve, I wrote a book, Jim, called, “How to Astronaut.” It’s like 51 short essays of different aspects of space travel. I talk a lot about these kind of daily things, but sleeping is great. I loved it. I was worried. I didn’t know if I’d be able to sleep. I would get in a sleeping bag, get myself completely, like, cocooned in it, my head and everything, and just float and sleep, which is really cool. On the shuttle, we had to find a piece of the wall to clip your sleeping bag to so you didn’t bounce into each other. But on the station you have your own little cabin. It’s like a phone booth, for those old enough to know what phone booths are. The day starts about 7:30 a.m. every morning. We use GMT as our time.
McNiel: And the lights go on and off accordingly?
Virts: It’s up to you, you turn them on and off when you want. You set your watch to GMT, and I was there with Samantha Cristoforetti. She and I were both late night people, like, we’re not early morning. So I would set my alarm at the absolute last minute. I’d kind of crawl out of bed, run down, and be ready for the 7:30 talk. We had a crewmate who was up at 5 every morning, and he’d have his exercise done before 7:30. And that’s just not me. But it was good actually. It’s better to have — if everybody was on the same schedule then we’d always be in each other’s way.
McNiel: So what is the energy source for the ISS?
Virts: It’s solar. We have these giant solar panels on the outside. They were up there for probably 20 years. NASA just replaced them, because solar degrades over time, especially in space where the environment is so traumatic. It’s very intense.
McNiel: People don’t realize that, do they? They think, “Oh, it’s just this vacuum. There’s nothing.”
Virts: There’s a lot up there.
McNiel: There’s radiation and there’s stuff flying around at incredible speeds.
Virts: So the oxygen that we’re breathing right now is O2, but there’s atomic oxygen. So just O, right. There’s O and it’s very reactive. Oxygen is what makes things rust on Earth. It’s very reactive, but the O, even though there’s very little of it, it’s almost a vacuum. But there are these molecules that degrade things. The biggest thing is the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Thankfully we have an ozone layer and that’s why there’s life on Earth. If not, every cell would be destroyed by ultraviolet. Ultraviolet is very, very intense; it destroys life.
McNiel: So Terry, when you’re floating around the ISS, what are the things you miss the most about planet Earth?
Virts: The biggest thing that I missed, I think most people miss, is friends and family. That was not fun being away. Although there’s email, there’s video conferences, there’s a phone system kind of like a FaceTime audio call you can make when you have the right satellite connection. So you can stay connected, but you miss them. Food. The food on the station is pretty good, but it’s not Earth-good food. But you know, one of the things, it was really surprising. One day I was floating through the middle of the station, I heard some birds chirping and I stopped and I thought, “OK, this is weird.” And I asked my Russian crewmate, who’s in the exercise module, he was working out. I said, “Misha,” we had this conversation in Russian, “like, why do you have a bird?”
And he laughed and the Russian psychologist had sent him sounds from Earth. And so everybody on the crew fell in love with these MP3 files that they had sent up. We had a jungle, we had waves lapping on the shore, we had rain, we had a cafe — just people talking and I loved that one. That was really cool. It felt like, wow, I’m around people again.
McNiel: Yeah. It’s like hanging at a diner with coffee cups and utensils and stuff like that.
Virts: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
McNiel: It’s the little things actually that accumulate, I imagine, overtime.
Virts: It was amazing. So we had one weekend, there’s probably 50 laptops up there. We put the MP3 rain on all the laptops. So it sounded like it was raining on the station, and that was fun for like a day. And then by Sunday we were like, “All right, that’s enough rain.” We went around and turned off all the rain. But I listened to that rain at nighttime when I would go to bed, I’d put on headsets just like this. We had some Bose headsets and plug it in the laptop and I just fell asleep to the sounds of rain. And my normal dreams in space were not, I didn’t dream or when I dreamt, I remember having these dreams of this just blackness and like asteroids flying around. But when I was listening to the sounds of rain, for that month, I actually dreamt about Earth. It was amazing. Like green fields, and I remember a hill with a house on it. That was really interesting, how powerful the sounds were. And also smells. The station’s very, it’s metal and plastic. It’s very sterile. But when cargo ships would come up, they’d put fruit, like you get some fresh apples or oranges or carrots and one of the several SpaceXs we had had oranges, which smelled amazing. Everybody just wanted to go down and smell these oranges. They were nasty. They were all moldy and smashed and gross, but they smelled really good. And so we all smelled them for a day and then we just wrapped them up and threw them away, because it had been so long and they got moldy.
McNiel: Terry, it’s been a delight talking to you. I think we’ll have to do this again.
Virts: This is fun. This is great.
McNiel: There’s just too much to cover.
I think it’s critically important to think about what life is like in space. It provides such a dramatic contrast and an understanding of what life is like on Earth. Every astronaut that goes into space looks down on our pale blue dot and they say, wow, that’s really special…
This is Jim McNiel. Thank you for listening to Good Clean Energy.
Good Clean Energy is edited and produced by Jennifer Hsu. Mixing and sound design by Wade Strange and Mike Clemow at SeeThruSound. Digital production by Katherine Wiles.