A conversation with Terry Virts, commander of the International Space Station

A moonlit night under an amazing and ever-changing aurora captured from the International Space Station by astronaut Terry Virts.
A moonlit night under an amazing and ever-changing aurora captured from the International Space Station by astronaut Terry Virts.
Image: NASA
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On a recent sunny spring afternoon in Boston, MA, NASA astronaut Terry Virts floated calmly in the International Space Station orbiting Earth. At the same time, participants of the Harvard Business School Executive Education General Management Program (GMP) and faculty eagerly gathered to hear the American commander speak to them in a live video Q&A. The event was a unique opportunity to learn about how one GMP alum is putting his program experience to work.

Here are highlights from the Q&A with Terry, who proudly sported his GMP alumni status in a black HBS T-shirt.

HBS professor and GMP faculty chair Sunil Gupta kicked off the 30 minute conversation by asking Terry about a few of his favorite experiences aboard the Space Station.

Terry has performed three spacewalks as a member of the 2015 Space Station crew. He joins an elite company of US men and women who have completed a total of 140 spacewalks, according to NASA.

When Terry isn’t spacewalking, he enjoys spending time with the Space Station’s internationally diverse crew and adapting to their cultures. Terry also loves sharing photos of his experience with the world through social media.

Since November, Terry and his crew have been hard at work experimenting and researching biology, material science, human physiology, and astronomy. They’ve also been focused on preparing the Space Station for the expected arrival of new NASA vehicles and eventual commercial flights that will spawn space tourism opportunities.

Terry spoke to the audience about the ways his GMP Executive Education has provided value. “I learned to work in small groups and understand the true value of diversity,” he said, “since participants come from all over the world for the program.”

Tangible evidence of the GMP’s long-lasting influence became apparent when he pulled out a small, white cap worn by dabbawalas in Mumbai, a reference to the Dabbawala System, a management framework taught by Stefan Thomke, Professor of Business Administration.

While Terry keeps personal mementos close to his heart in the Space Station, he also adheres to the traits of any successful leader.

Terry commented on how important it is for leaders to tailor their management style depending on the situation. For example, he collaborates with his experienced crew differently than if he were working with say, a “group of 18-year-olds” as a Marine lieutenant. “If you have a team like this, you let them produce the ideas…and get out of their way,” said Terry in response to a question from Professor Linda Hill.

As the conversation with Terry drew to a close, the topic shifted from leadership to technology. When asked by Professor Stefan Thomke about his favorite technology on the Space Station, Terry pointed out, “I’m surrounded by technology here as you can see, but if I had to choose, I really enjoyed my space walks. I also appreciate the simplest technology, such as how we are able to tie our trash bags in space. Trash is a huge conundrum here, and this helps a lot.”

Before signing off, Terry left some parting wisdom to aspiring astronauts.

For more inspiration (and stunning views), follow Terry’s adventures on Twitter.

To learn more about pursuing a leadership-focused curriculum at the General Management Program at HBS, click here.

This article was produced by Harvard Business School and not by the Quartz editorial staff.