‘If you smell ammonia, you will die’: Space Station astronaut describes emergency in space

‘In training, they had told us, “If you smell ammonia, don’t worry about it, because you’re just going to die”.’

‘Then the alarm went off, and it said ATM – and Samantha went, ‘That’s atmosphere! It’s ammonia!’ We put our oxygen masks on and ran to the Russian section – you’re supposed to take your clothes off, because if you have ammonia on your clothes, it can kill you.’

Those are the words of Space Station Commander Terry Virts, describing to Yahoo News the moment astronauts were evacuated from the US section of the International Space Station in January 2015 and moved into the Russian side after a signal raised concerns of an ammonia leak.

Houston called us and said, ‘This is not a drill, execute ammonia response.’ The Russian Prime Minister called us, and said, ‘Hey American colleagues, you can stay in the Russian segment’. We spent the whole afternoon staring at each other. If there had been an ammonia leak, the station would have died.

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‘But the world in general never knew that story. At the end, they said, ‘False alarm – but keep your gas masks on just in case.’ When we went back, it was like a ghost ship. Things were floating about. It was eerie – like an Alien film – a lot of things beeping.’

‘After that, I went back to the Russian segment and left a bunch of spare clothes, just in case.’

Virts was speaking to Yahoo News at the Starmus science festival in Trondheim – ahead of the launch of his book View From Above: An Astronaut Looks at The World later this year.


Virts, 49, is a highly experienced pilot and astronaut who flew on Space Shuttle Endeavour prior to a 200-day mission on the International Space Station starting in 2014.

Virts shot to worldwide fame due to his photographs – including an iconic shot where he did the Vulcan hand signal to honour Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy after his death.


He says that spending 200 days in space offers a new perspective on life on Earth, ‘You look down, and you can’t see borders. You think, ‘Why are we fighting?’ You’re with the Russians, and you think, ‘I love these guys.’

‘I’m not a hippie guy, I’m a realist – but you think life is hard enough to fight disease, and grow food. Why do we fight?’

‘The only borders you can see clearly are ones like India/Pakistan and North Korea/South Korea.’

In one of Virts’ most iconic images – he took 300,000 while on the Space Station – South Korea is seen glowing with electric light, while North Korea is shrouded in darkness.

Virts says that people often ask him about that image. He says, ‘That border between North Korea and South Korea is the most striking photo of the human condition I took from space.’

For Virts, the most intense part of his 200-day mission on the Space Station were spacewalks outside the station itself.

‘On a space walk, you’re in command – you’re basically a spaceship. Your suit has water for cooling, there’s a rocket pack. It’s a spaceship. There’s maybe ten layers of metal – but your visor is a very thin layer of plastic. If you poke a hole in it, you’re going to die.’


‘There’s a picture of this robotic arm that you’re doing work with – then the most beautiful sunrise you’ve never seen. Every once in a while, you’re hearing from God. You’re seeing things no human should see. Then you think, ‘I should get back to work.’

Virts says that he feared he would be depressed when he returned to Earth – but the problem he is now facing, having travelled 84 million miles above our planet, is that he has too many countries he wants to visit.

Virts says, ‘The problem with flying in space, your bucket list gets too long.’

Starmus festival, hosted by NTNU, Norway, Trondheim, www.starmus.com. Starmus is the world’s most ambitious science and arts festival with Professor Stephen Hawking as keynote speaker, 11 Nobel laureates and Buzz Aldrin, Oliver Stone, Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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