Former NASA astronaut Ron Garan recounts how he adopted a new perspective on global solidarity while serving on the International Space Station. Creating a better world, says Garan, requires a higher level of cooperation and innovation from all members of the human race. Garan’s new book is titled The Orbital Perspective.
Ron Garan: What the orbital perspective is, is a slightly different way of looking at our global society and looking at our planet. It’s a perspective that takes a long-term view. It’s a perspective that takes a big-picture view. And when we zoom out and see our planet from space a lot of things become clear. Not only do we see where the pieces of the puzzle fit, but who has them and what value they add. And I think it’s an acknowledgement that we don’t have to accept the status quo on our planet. It’s a belief that anything is possible. That we, through working together, can really tackle the big problems facing our planet.
So I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had a lot of perspective-shifting experiences. I lived on the bottom of the ocean for three weeks in Aquarius, the only undersea laboratory. I flew once on the U.S. space shuttle on a two-week construction mission aboard the International Space Station. And I spent about half a year, half of 2011, living and working on board the International Space Station after launching from Kazakhstan on a Russian rocket with a couple of Russian crewmates.
When it was time to depart the space station and return home, my Russian crewmates and I climbed in into our Soyuz spacecraft, the same one we launched from five and a half months earlier. We wiggled into our seats, you know, we had our spacesuits on. We strapped ourselves in. It’s really tight — it’s like three guys in the back of the trunk of a car. Our knees are in our chest. We undocked from the space station and I had a window. I was sitting in the right seat. I had a window right by my head and I strained as best I could to see the space station as we were departing it because I knew quite likely that would be the last time I ever saw this magnificent sight. And after we undocked we did a couple laps around the planet and as we passed the south tip of South America, we fishtailed our spacecraft around to point the engines backwards. And I remember when we did this I saw this crescent moon go by the window. It was just absolutely breathtaking.
We fired our engines just a little bit at precisely the right moment to have us enter the upper atmosphere. And as we entered the upper atmosphere we started to develop drag, you know. We had this fiery violent ride through the atmosphere. It was really amazing. Once you got down to a lower altitude the speed really becomes amazing. And I remember seeing, oh, there goes Africa as we whizzed by the continent. And the parachutes opened. They threw us all over the place. Shortly thereafter we smashed into the ground. We bounced. We flipped. We rolled over. And when we rolled over we rolled on the right side. And now my window was pointing at the ground and I remember looking out of the window and seeing a rock, a flower, and a blade of grass. And I remember thinking to myself distinctly that I’m home. And what was really amazing about that thought was that I was in Kazakhstan. And so for me, at that moment, my home was no longer Houston, Texas, where I live with my family or Yonkers, New York, where I was born and grew up. My home was Earth and that was really a perspective-shifting moment for me.
So one of the big tenets of the book and the reason why I cite and tell so many stories about people that are accomplishing amazing things that have never been in space — one of the main tenets is that you don’t have to be in orbit to have the orbital perspective. We don’t have to be in space to realize that we need each other. We don’t have to be in space to realize that by being open to new innovative partnerships, new innovative solutions, answers can come to the challenges we face from anywhere in the world. And so I think the big thing is to understand the framework that we built to view the world in. Now we live, as we all know, in a very, very complicated world. There’s so many horrors. There’s terrorism. There’s poverty. There’s almost a billion people that don’t have access to clean water. There’s so many ills that our global society face.
But our world also has compassion and love and ingenuity and creativity and self-sacrifice. And so it becomes very complicated and what we tend to do, and myself included, we tend to build a more simplified framework through which to view the world, through which to view our global society. And when we do that we tend to build cubbyholes and put people and groups into certain cubbyholes. It just makes it easier and more palpable to understand the events, the current events of the day. But what that does is it also creates barriers and walls. We box ourselves into these cubbyholes, which at sometimes prevents us from dialogue, prevents us from recognizing any merit in the position, in another person’s position, another group’s position because we’ve written off whole groups of people, whole countries, whole cultures as not worth our time, not worth our — there’s no value in the problem-solving process to engage those people.
And I think once we realize that and we can step outside of it — and I don’t just mean, you know, people and organizations. You know there’s political parties. A good example is the political process in the U.S. right now where we’ve become so divided and to the point where one side will refuse to recognize any merit whatsoever in the position of the other side. If they win, we lose. If they gain, we lose. And so I think that is a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for not being able to have progress. It’s a barrier to us being able to tackle the big problems. And so I think you don’t have to go to space to realize that. You don’t have to go to space to realize that each and every one of us is riding through the universe together on this spaceship that we call Earth, that we’re all interconnected; we’re all in this together and that we’re all family. And I think one of the big things that the orbital perspective teaches us is there are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We’re all crewmates and as crewmates we have a responsibility to mind the ship and take care of our fellow crewmates.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton