The last few years have seen a rekindling of imagination and interest in space exploration and the loopy fundamentals of our understanding of the universe, from the mind-bending Interstellar to Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s Seth MacFarlane-assisted reboot of Cosmos.
According to rough estimates, 108 billion people in total have walked the Earth since we emerged from the murk of unconsciousness 200,000 years ago. Of those 108 billion, only 547 have been blasted off of our comfortable rock to explore, gingerly, the cold vastness that we float amidst and to conduct experiments (and be living experiments themselves…) that will help us explore ever further.
Billboard had the honor of speaking to Colonel Terry Virts and Commander Butch Wilmore, two astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station, orbiting the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. These are people confronted every moment with the majesty of the heavens and the ego-destroying scale of the Earth, in relief against the cosmos.
With such a holistic worldview, what better time to ask whether or not Beyonce got robbed at the Grammys, and what music they prefer while changing the world? Watch the highlights right here, and read our full transcript below.
You guys actually had to deal with the “desert island disc” question — so what were your “vastness of space” discs?
Terry Virts: The question is what music did we bring, is that the question? I brought a lot of different kinds of music. I have a lot of contemporary country music like Brandon Heath, Casting Crowns, I’ve got some pop and some dance music that I use when I work out. I brought some country music, I got come classical stuff that I just chill out to. I really like a lot of different kinds of music and it depends on what mood I’m in and what I’m doing.
Barry “Butch” Wilmore: Yeah I’m about the same, I’ve got some contemporary Christian some mercy me and that type of stuff. I also really like the big band kind of movie score music with Audiomachine and Thomas Bergersen and that type of genre as well. I listen to a lot of that.
Do you guys ever fight over who gets to pick the music?
Virts: No, we haven’t. [Laughs] I actually like his music, and he seems to like mine too.
Who would you say has the best taste in music? For some reason my guess was Elena [Serova, a Russian astronaut on the same mission].
Yeah that’s a good guess. Her and Samantha [Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut also on the mission], they’ve both got very good taste in music.
If you could pick on artist live or dead to send into space — either to learn from the experience or just to entertain you — who would it be?
Virts: I would send Brandon Heath. He’s a good friend of mine; he’s a contemporary Christian artist. He was actually at my space shuttle launch — he came to Russia to Kazakhstan for my launch a few months ago. He wrote a song after my shuttle launch which was kind of inspired by that. It would be really cool to have him up there, somebody who’s an artist, not just a fighter pilot like me and butch are, someone who could communicate the wonder of space flight, I think that would be really cool.
Wilmore: I honestly could not choose one. There’s so many that I enjoy, and it would be narrowing it too narrow to pick one. I can’t do it.
Piggybacking off what you just said, how are you relieved that Chris Hatfield and his guitar aren’t there anymore?
Virts: Oh we’ve heard Chris play many times — he’s quite good. And he’s made up some songs that are quite humorous as well. We kind of enjoy that. It’s not bad.
Terry you’re pretty active on Twitter, but how connected are you in real time to the world below? Do you just have to take Houston’s word for everything?
They keep us in touch pretty well. We can make phone calls when we have the right satellite connection, so throughout a lot of the day it’s possible to make phone calls if you want to do that. we get email in almost real time so we can get messages back and forth, and there is an internet connection that is available part time, so we do have sometimes real-time connection and often almost real-time, so we can stay plugged into the earth. One of the advantages of being in space is that you can get rid of that email account on the ground and you can get disconnected a little bit. It’s actually pretty nice to not know everything going on in the last possible second. It’s kind of nice to be disconnected.
After a long period of “quiet,” are you glad to see that space exploration and science in general have reentered the public imagination and conversation?
Virts: I think it’s awesome. You know we get a chance to travel around the world and talk to students and adults and we just get to talk to people about space flight. And I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t interested by it, who wasn’t enthralled by it, who didn’t think it was awesome and that’s because it is. I think there’s a lot of interest in space travel, I think in the coming years and decades as NASA and hopefully other partner nations start to go beyond the moon and mars and hopefully start to explore the solar system that’s gonna be even more exciting. I think it’s a good time.
Is it hard to keep lying about aliens flying around the earth all the time?
Wilmore: [Laughs] No it’s not hard at all. There’s no lying, I’ve never seen anything, or even a hint of what I think would be something strange. Not that it couldn’t happen I guess — but I certainly haven’t seen it.
I guess I’ll have to take your word for that. How do you respond to people who say space exploration and experimentation are a waste of money?
Well I say as an American, exploration and the drive to move west and expanding frontiers, that’s just part of who we are as Americans. As a nation unless we’re expanding and pushing ahead, I think we’re going to be retracting and contracting. So I think it’s something that we need to do, it’s in our national character, and by pushing boundaries and doing things you haven’t done before, you make discoveries about how to do other things that you may not even have anticipated. So there are practical benefits for folks on earth, there’s also the national character, the desire to go explore that is very important. And when you look at NASA’s budget, if that’s what you’re talking about specifically, it’s much less than 1% of the federal government’s budget. We do spend a lot of money and we appreciate the taxpayer’s support, but in the big picture of what we’re spending, and when we spend the money we don’t launch it into space, we spend it on earth at home on engineering jobs and so on, the amount of money and resources that we put into space exploration I think is well spent, and the returns are pretty good.
Can you talk a little bit about the experiments you’re conducting up there? I know there’s four of them and they all sound incredibly interesting.
One of the really cool things about being here on the space station is that we get to do a lot of different experiments. We have an astronomy experiment that’s looking for dark matter and anti particles. We have a lot of biology experiments, I was just growing some morning glory plants and we’re going to be growing rice plants here soon. I did one that’s called capillary flow experiment that will hopefully help future satellites be able to use every last drop of fuel, because its so expensive to launch things into space that’s important. And that was really cool because by changing the geometry of a container just by half a degree, you can get the fluid to move really quickly in different directions, so you can change the geometry of a gas tank and make sure all the fuel gets sucked out of the gas tank. I did not ever anticipate that’s the way it would happen, but in weightlessness that’s the way it behaves. I could go on and on about so many different experiments that we’re doing, they’re very interesting — some of them provide benefits on earth, hopefully curing diseases for humans and others are learning about the universe that we live in.
Great, I’ve just got one more question for you: Do you think that Beyoncé got robbed at the Grammys, when Beck won Album of the Year?
Wilmore: Absolutely she was robbed, we were very upset about that, were talking about it for days. We were on Kanye’s side.