Review: View From Above

View From Above: An Astronaut Photographs the World
by Terry Virts
National Geographic, 2017
hardcover, 304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4262-1864-4

For astronaut Terry Virts, it was the colors of the Earth from space that dazzled him. “I had never seen that shade of blue before,” he writes in the opening chapter of his new book, describing the first sunrise he saw from space, as the shuttle Endeavour ascended to orbit on the STS-130 mission in 2010. “It was as if I had been raised in a black-and-white world and I was seeing color for the first time, reminding me of the first time I saw my daughter’s blue eyes.”

Virts does more than describe colors in View From Above, his book about his experiences on the shuttle and the International Space Station. He took a lot of photos during his 200-day stint on the ISS in 2014–2015: 319,275, to be exact, the book states, a record (for now) for the most photos taken by a single astronaut on a single mission. That includes images of the Earth, of aurorae, and activities in and outside of the station.

Some of those pictures are included in the book, but View From Above is more than just a collection of images. At the start it might appear to be more focused on images: one chapter, titled “White,” describes the distinctive appearance of snow and ice on the Earth he noticed. “I now think of Earth in terms of colors,” he writes at the beginning of that chapter. “It’s a different way of seeing things than you notice on the ground.”

That color-based theme for the book, though, is abandoned in later chapters, which shifts from terrestrial hues to extraterrestrial hows of life in space. (He does return to the color theme in a later chapter, simply titled “Colors.”) Many chapters includes images of the Earth, but Virts also discusses life on the ISS, including the experience of spacewalks as well as when, in January 2015, emergency alarms went off on the station warning of an ammonia leak. The crew huddled in the Russian segment of the station for hours, for what turned out to be a false alarm. “In the midst of all this excitement, I did would any steely-eyed fighter pilot would do,” he writes. “I took a nap.”

Like many others who have flown in space, Virts writes that the spaceflight experience had changed him. He recalled turning on television shortly after returning from his first shuttle mission, only to turn it off after a minute, rejecting as banal what the networks considered to be important. “I was watching what was being sold as news—and with my newfound perspective, I just could not stomach it,” he writes. “My worldview was changed forever in a profound way.”

After his long-duration mission to the ISS, Virts decided to retire from NASA, not desiring to wait several years for another flight assignment and concluding missions beyond Earth orbit were too far in the future. (He suggests he’ll describe his visions for future space exploration, such as “fast-track” missions to Mars, in a future book.) He’s now often working with Buzz Aldrin, whom he first met prior to becoming an astronaut; the two share the same manager and Aldrin wrote the book’s foreword.

View From Above falls somewhere in the spectrum between astronaut memoir and photo collection. There’s some discussion about his life before, during, and after being an astronaut, but it’s not a full-fledged biography. At the same time, there’s more about his life, and life in space, in the book than a collection of images. There are many such images in the book, though, often spanning facing pages in the large-format book. (At least one is mislabeled, though: an image describes as being of the Jacksonville, Florida, area appears to be from further south, around Boca Raton, based on the landmarks visible in it.) The result is a book that does live up to its title: a view from above, both in photos of the Earth from space as well as a perspective of living in space.


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