Astronaut Terry Virts: How Apollo 11 inspired my space journey

Terry Virts was just a year old when Neil Armstrong took and Buzz Aldrin took their historic first steps on the Moon. A few years later, the epic Apollo 11 mission sparked a lifelong passion for space in the youngster, laying the foundations for his future career as an astronaut.

“The first book I read in kindergarten was about the Apollo mission,” Virts said in an interview with Fox News. “That was what inspired me to do what I did.”

The Maryland native went on to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy and later became an Air Force test pilot. Selected by NASA in 2000, he piloted the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2010 on a mission to the International Space Station. Virts returned to the orbiting space lab in December 2014 when he served as flight engineer of Expedition 42 and commander of Expedition 43, before retiring from the space agency in 2016.

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In this photo provided by NASA, United States astronaut Terry Virts is helped out of the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft just minutes after he and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, center, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, Thursday, June 11, 2015.

In this photo provided by NASA, United States astronaut Terry Virts is helped out of the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft just minutes after he and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, center, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, Thursday, June 11, 2015. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

Virts is a consultant for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which runs the ISS U.S. National Lab.

The 51-year-old former astronaut conducted more than 3,600 orbits during his 16-year NASA career and said he's forged friendships with many of the men who made history during the Apollo program. “I am friends with a lot of those guys,” he explained. “I have got to be particular friends with Buzz Aldrin.”

As America prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing on July 20th, 2019, Virts weighed the impact of the epic mission. “It was probably the most ‘bring people together experience’ of our time,” he told Fox News, adding that it provided the inspiration for his space career.

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The late 1960s were a turbulent time in the U.S., marked by the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights, especially 1968. One year prior the Apollo 11 launch, 1968 was marred by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, the bloody Tet offensive in Vietnam and anti-war riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

For Virts, the Apollo program stood out “above all the mess that was happening here on the planet.”

The former astronaut says that space exploration still serves as a great example of what humanity can achieve when people come together.

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File photo - Expedition 43 commander and NASA astronaut Terry Virts is seen here inside of the International Space Station's Cupola module.

File photo - Expedition 43 commander and NASA astronaut Terry Virts is seen here inside of the International Space Station's Cupola module. (NASA)

During his last stint on the ISS, Virts, his fellow NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti had to evacuate the U.S. side of the space station because of a suspected ammonia leak. “It ended up being a false alarm, but for 24 hours, we thought it was real,” he recounted. “We thought that that the American side [of the space station] was going to die.”

File photo - U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, centre, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, bottom, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, crew members of the mission to the International Space Station, ISS, gesture prior the launch of Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014.

File photo - U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, centre, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, bottom, and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, crew members of the mission to the International Space Station, ISS, gesture prior the launch of Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (The Associated Press)

The astronauts sought refuge on the Russian side of the orbiting space lab, and Virts still remembers the support he received from cosmonauts Elena Serova, Alexander Samoukutyaev and Anton Shkaplerov, as well as officials on the ground in Russia. “For me, the greatest achievement of the International Space Station is nations working together.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers