View From Above

by Judy Parker

Dazzling reds and vibrant swirling pinks explode right outside the Space Shuttle Endeavour's window. Beautiful flashes of orange light up the cabin.

But shuttle pilot Col. Terry Virts can't concentrate on the pretty colors. He's too busy guiding the spacecraft through the atmosphere on re-entry.

When the Endeavour returned to Earth last February, it tore through the atmosphere going more than 20 times faster than a bullet—that's around 18,000 mph. All of the friction caused by going through the atmosphere created temperatures of more than 3,000º F and erupted in amazing colors.

"It was like a strobe light flashing," Terry says about the brilliant lights. "It was pretty amazing to look out the window and realize what's happening just a few feet away from my head."

By staying at the proper angle and relying on the shuttle's heat shields, the crew made it safely back to the ground, landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 21.

"The space shuttle is an unbelievable vehicle," Terry says. "The amazing thing about it is that it starts as a rocket, turns into a spaceship and then it turns into an airplane."

Born to Fly

For as long as Terry can remember, he wanted to be an astronaut. He dreamed of flying into space and exploring unknown worlds. He wanted to float where no gravity exists, looking at the Earth and moon suspended in the distance. But it was such an impossible dream that he wasn't sure it could ever become a reality.

Talk of spaceships and rockets filled his home growing up. Both of his parents worked at the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, but Terry's interest in space was ignited in kindergarten when he read his first book about the Apollo moon missions.

"It seemed kind of crazy to actually get to be an astronaut," Terry admits. "It's like trying to be a major league baseball player; so few people get to do it."

Terry was determined, however. And he learned that determination could help him accomplish his goals.

In high school he tried out for the baseball team, but didn't  make it. Despite being cut, the coach said Terry could still practice with the team. Who wants to practice with a team he's not on? Terry, that's who. He kept practicing and didn't give up. Finally, he was allowed to play in a few games, and the next year he made the team.

"It was a good lesson in perseverance," Terry says. "It was something I wanted to do, so I stuck with it."

Terry learned another important lesson while he was in high school: He was a sinner who needed God's forgiveness. While attending a youth group meeting, Terry asked Jesus to come into his heart and be the boss of his life.

Now that Jesus was in control, could Terry still pursue his dream to become an astronaut? The answer was yes. Terry realized God had given him this dream. Now Terry just needed to follow God's plan to the best of his ability.

Prepare for Liftoff

To work in the space industry, Terry needed a technical degree in math, science or engineering. He attended the United States Air Force Academy and graduated with a degree in mathematics. Not only did Terry do well in the classroom, but he also excelled in the cockpit. He flew fighter planes all over the world, later becoming an experimental test pilot at the F-16 Combined Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base in California. 

Terry's lifelong dream became a reality in 2000, when he was selected as an astronaut candidate. By then, he had accumulated over 3,900 flight hours in more than 40 different aircraft.

Terry didn't just jump behind the controls of the space shuttle right away. He had to wait 10 years before being picked as the pilot for the STS-130 mission.

Terry launched into space on the Endeavour with a six-member crew on Feb. 8, 2010. Their main objective on the 14-day mission was to bring two new "rooms," called modules, to the International Space Station.

"I think it was the first time that two modules had been brought up at the same time," Terry says.

Terry's primary duty on the mission was flying the space shuttle, especially during launch, landing and the rendezvous with the International Space Station. 

Once docked, Terry had several jobs. He operated the robotic arm to inspect the external heat shields for any damage that might have occurred during takeoff. He and his crewmates also used the arm to grab the modules, remove them from the shuttle and attach them to the space station.

View of Heaven

During Terry's first trip into space, God's incredible creation astounded him.

"In space, it was really cool to see the Earth and how amazingly beautiful it is," Terry says. "You could see what a great God He is to have made, designed and created such a neat planet. And it just struck me that if the Earth is this cool, then heaven is really going to be good."

Even though the creative side of God was so clear to Terry, not everything was easy. Floating proved to be one of the difficult challenges.

"Floating was tough," Terry says. "It takes a few days to get used to. There's no gravity, so you have to push yourself and when you do, not only does that move you, but it rotates you."

Other challenges arose, but Terry relied on God and asked Him for help. 

"I prayed a lot for little things," Terry says. "If I would lose something, I would just pray, 'God, help me find this thing.' It was so easy to lose things because things floated away constantly."

Eating was also a challenge. To keep food from floating off of plates, it's dehydrated and packed in vacuum-sealed bags.

"The food was very good," Terry says. "It comes in these plastic bags that you fill up with water. For the last week in space, I did not use a spoon. I just cut a little hole in the bags and sucked the food right on out!"

God had big plans for Terry and still does. And this astronaut worked hard and perseveres to follow God's plan for his life.

Adventures in Odyssey in Space

Every astronaut is allowed to take 10 small personal items into space. So what did Space Shuttle Endeavour pilot Terry Virts carry into space? Adventures in Odyssey, of course.

"We're big fans of Adventures in Odyssey," Terry says about his wife and two children. "When we go on car trips, we take our CDs."

The Adventures in Odyssey staff created a special poster for Terry that showed him riding in his spacesuit in a parade in downtown Odyssey. He also brought up a couple of the episodes.

When Terry flew the shuttle back to Earth, Mr. Whittaker, Eugene and the Odyssey crew had logged quite a few miles in space: 5.7 million miles to be exact!

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Judy Parker. Used by permission. Photos © NASA.