Eagle Grad Brings Home Thrill and Beauty of Spaceflight

Terry Virts (‘97) wants to share the view from above.

Terry Virts ('97) earned his M.S. in Aeronautics degree at Embry-Riddle before becoming a test pilot for the Air Force and setting his sights on the stars. (Photo: Terry Virts)
Terry Virts ('97) earned his M.S. in Aeronautics degree at Embry-Riddle before becoming a test pilot for the Air Force and setting his sights on the stars. (Photo: Terry Virts)

Virts, a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter pilot who went on to fly the Space Shuttle, command the International Space Station and complete three spacewalks, is using words, film and pictures to amaze the earthbound and inspire future space explorers in the same way he was inspired by a book about the Apollo program.

A veteran of 45 combat missions in the 1990s — including one where he helped his wingman glide to a safe landing after engine failure over hostile territory — Virts earned his Master of Science in Aeronautics degree at Embry-Riddle, became a test pilot for the Air Force and set his sights on the stars.

Virts, who retired from NASA in 2016, has written a book of 51 essays called “How to Astronaut” and had his photos from orbit published in a National Geographic book titled “View from Space.” He also helped shoot the popular IMAX film called “A Beautiful Planet,” which puts viewers into an astronaut’s space boots.

“I wanted to share the beauty of our planet and galaxy and stories from my missions with everyone,” Virts said of his creative pursuits. 

By writing “How to Astronaut,” Virts said he aimed to put “spaceflight in a book” and create “something that will make people laugh and say ‘wow.’ It’s a book that is accessible to everyone, not just space nerds.”

Virts said he chose Embry Riddle’s for his master’s degree because of the university’s excellent reputation in aeronautics, and he was able to complete his studies while he was on active duty and based in Germany.

A native of Maryland, Virts credits Embry-Riddle with preparing him for test pilot school because he had been away from academic settings for some time between graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1989 and starting his master’s program.

His educational experience helped him move up in the Air Force and paved the way for his selection as an astronaut. Chosen for the program in 2000, he flew millions of miles aboard the shuttle and the ISS and logged more than 19 hours walking in space.

On one trip, he brought along an Embry-Riddle banner to show his Eagle pride on orbit. After Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock on the original “Star Trek,” died in 2015, Virts honored him by giving the Vulcan salute (“Live Long and Prosper”) as the ISS passed over Boston, the actor’s hometown.

In 2019, Virts was among a group of pilots who made the fastest circumnavigation of Earth via both geographic poles in an aircraft, and he also directed his first film, entitled “One More Orbit.” Today, he continues his career as an author, director, public speaker and business consultant.

Next year, Virts plans to release a children’s book called “Astronaut’s Guide,” which he hopes will help inspire a new generation of explorers.