Exclusive interview with the decorated NASA Astronaut, Colonel Ron Garan – an astronaut, humanitarian and the author of the book “The Orbital Perspective”.
Colonel Ron Garan has spent 178 days in space and has accomplished four spacewalks. However he is celebrated not just for his research in space but for his humanitarian contribution to life on Earth.
Dodo Newman reached out Colonel Ron Garan in Tucson, Arizona where he exclusively talked about his personal experiences both in space and Earth sharing the human side of his journey.
Dodo: Do you remember the first time of your life when you wanted to go up to space?
Ron: Yes, it was July 20th, 1969. It was a very memorable date for me because it was the first Moon landing. One of my most vivid childhood memory was the first footsteps on the Moon by Neil Armstrong. I was then seven years old. Ever since that day I wanted be part of that, the part of those people who were able to step out from our Planet. At some level I realised that we had just become a different species. We were a species no longer confined to our Planet, which just amazed me. It served, inspired and motivated me throughout my life to try to achieve that.
Dodo: It was so early and still it had a so striking effect on you. Does the space return in your dreams now that you do not go anymore out there?
Ron: I have had dreams about space, but usually not.
Dodo: Do you still have strong desires to go back to space?
Ron: I do. Hopefully in early 2018 I will have the opportunity to return to the edge of space. I am looking forward to that.
Dodo: Beside being an astronaut, you are also an author. I had a chance to read your inspiring book called “The Orbital Perspective” which is a must read book for many astronauts and space lovers.
“The Orbital Perspective could wind up being the most important tale ever told from space.” — Jeffrey Kluger, TIME
To be honest I became aware of this book also through a personal recommendation of a future space traveler. And it was very interesting to read that you mention in your book a song by Peter Gabriel “Downside Up” that captures the essence of orbital perspective. How would you describe this to those who have not been up in space yet, because it is more like a philosophical concept and people in general have no experience such as yours.
Ron: What Peter (Gabriel) captured and what is the description of the song is that all of a sudden your perspective shifts. Lying in a field of grass and looking up at the stars at some point you feel like you are looking down at an ocean of stars. And that’s what he calls Downside Up. To me it is like looking at the Earth at one moment as you would do from an airplane from very high, but all of a sudden everything clicks in the place and you realise that you are not just looking down at Earth but you are actually looking down on to a Planet hanging in the blackness of space.
If you are at the nighttime side of the orbit you are looking at a Planet hanging against the infinity. You see the Milky Way and the Universe if you are at the dark side of the orbit.
For me The Orbital Perspective is the realisation that although we live in our individual countries and individual cities each and every one of us is deeply interconnected with everybody else. Not just with the other people but with all the living things on our Planet. We are all part of one eco-system called Earth and we are all together in this universe and this spaceship that we call Earth.
The other thing it does for example with me is the very sobering contradiction between the beauty of our Planet on one hand and the unfortunate realities of life on our Planet. Life on our Planet is not always as beautiful as it looks from space and it can fill you with this sense of refusal to accept the status quo on our Planet, to accept that we have to just say that the suffering, the conflicts, poverty and all the other problems on our Planet are inescapable and we can not solve them. But it is not true, we can solve them. One of the things that it does it makes you look at a much bigger picture not just from a geographic sense but also from a temporal sense, from a timeline, looking at what are the effects of our decisions over a long timeframe. There are lot of thing that become clear when you shift into that perspective and the pieces of the puzzle become clear, who has what piece of the puzzle and what picture they paint for our global society.
Dodo: I believe it is a very important message what you just phrased and I also believe that this is the key element why your book The Orbital Perspective is so powerful.
Dodo: What were the main issues of your life that changed by having been in space? What were the elements that made you see life on Earth differently?
Ron: I think the biggest thing I saw differently was my definition of Home. I talk about this a lot. When I came back to Earth from my second space mission on a Soyuz spacecraft we entered the atmosphere, the parachutes were open, we slammed into the ground, we bounced, rolled and flipped over. And then my window was pointed down to the ground. I looked out of my window and saw a rock, a flower and a blade of grass, and I thought and told myself: I am home!
What was really interesting about that thought that I realised right away was that I was home, but actually I was in Kazakhstan. So for me at that particular moment home was not just Houston where I lived with my family, but it was Earth.
I think our definition of the word home has a profound implications for how we tackle and solve the problems and challenges facing our Planet and I believe this is a really interesting shift in perspective that space travel allows us to have. But I also believe that you don’t have to go to space to have that perspective.
Dodo: It is very interesting I think because it is very simple, but so true. I truly hope that with this message more people will understand that.
So I guess your life’s purpose changed while you were in space. How did you realise this? Was it like a gradual process or something instant?
Ron: The biggest thing that hit me is when I was on the space station during my second mission which was a five and a half month mission, was looking down at the Planet day in and day out, week after week, month after month, really gave me this sense as I watched the seasons change that we live on this living and breathing organism. I launched into my second space mission in 2011 with the belief that we actually have right now all the technology and resources necessary to solve the challenges facing on our Planet.
A lot of time while I was on the space station I had the opportunity to look back at our Planet and I would think about what the next fifty years will look like, what the global society will look like and I would think about this question constantly. It gnawed at me constantly that if it is really true that we already have all the technology and resources necessary to solve all the problems we face on Planet then why do we still face so many critical challenges. And I think the reason why we do is because to date, we have not yet learned to effectively work together on a global scale. We have not effectively learned how to collaborate with each other.
So I left space in 2011 with a call to action. It was a call to spread this perspective of our Planet that I believe if we embrace can have a really profound and positive effect on the trajectory of our global society.
The main reason why we still face these problems after all the decades or in some cases centuries of work to tackle these problems, is because we refuse to work together, to collaborate, we all have our own piece of the puzzle and we are not willing to give to the main puzzle to make the picture that puzzle is supposed to make. And my call to action ever since leaving NASA is to communicate this perspective.
Dodo: So this was your main motivation to write your book.
Ron: Yes, but beside the book The Orbital Perspective I’m also involved many startup businesses that are also trying to share this perspective, I give presentations and speeches about The Orbital Perspective. I also teach a course about this at Drexel University. What all of these have in common is that I try to figurately transport people to the place where they all can experience this perspective shift.
Dodo: This actually goes to my interest whether your sense of time change in space? Do you have more space inside as well? Having spent more time in space did you have some revelations?
Ron: We are very-very busy at the space station but we do have some free time. Most everybody who spends time on the space station spends their free time by looking out the window. I was no different. 90% of the free time I had was with my face plastered to a window. When I looked back at the Earth I was always filled with a sense of gratitude, gratitude for the opportunity to see the Earth from that vantage point and also gratitude for the gift of the Planet that we have been given. And in a way that I really can not explain, being physically detached to the only world I have ever known made me feel deeply interconnected with everybody on it. And what is really apparent is that lot of the things that seem so important on ground, a lot of the things we fight over, quarrel over and argue about seem so stupid from that perspective, so trivial and meaningless. You just want to be able to bring people up there and to show them “Hey look!” this is the reality.
You know everything I have experienced goes under the category of truth. You are not giving some special philosophy, or showing some special insights. What you are showing is actually the reality of the world that we are all living in. The reality which has always been there, that we just do not always realise because we are living in our two dimensional world.
Dodo: It is very beautiful how you phrased it and it is so much higher level than many people thing and fight for it. I know that you are a father of three, three sons actually. Are you their hero?
Ron: I do not know whether I am their hero, you have to ask them. I am just their dad, that is who I am.
Dodo: What is your opinion about the next generation who are gifted with an incredible technological knowledge and yet they are growing up on entertainment and reality shows. Having their celebrity heroes they hardly even know about the great achievers, discoverers of our times. Because their heroes might be totally different than yours were. As you mentioned you were just seven years old when you already turned your eyes to the space.
Ron: I agree that the younger generation now has been bombarded by “false heroes” and with not good role models. BUT I am also extremely impressed with the young generation, because what I see is that people of the older generations are more likely to accept the status quo, this is just the way the world is. We can not do anything about this, it is the way it is and we have to accept that we do not have the necessary power to change this.
“The Orbital Perspective is an inspirational knockout. After reading this book you will refuse to accept the status quo on our Planet.” — Wladimir Klitschko, Heavyweight Champion of the World
While I see in the younger generation a refusal to buy that, a willingness to make the effort to change the world and to make it a better place. I am really impressed with the young generation.
Dodo: How do you consider the appreciation of the astronauts in today’s world? It is obviously very different than it was in the sixties or seventies.
Ron: I think and at least this is my personal experience that when I am at a school talking to students they are pretty excited to see a real astronaut and they always want to hear all the stories. I think this still fascinates people and space travel added a new push to it, people get very excited about it. And to be honest the further we go with the explorations the more motivation we will see.
Dodo: Do you think it is important for our children to go up eventually to space, so that they also experience?
Ron: I think the more people that get to experience our Planet from that vantage point, from that perspective the better off everybody is going to be. And the younger you are when you have that experience the more powerful and impactful that experience might be as well.
Dodo: Why do you think it is so important?
Ron: Because going back to the word “Truth”, it is almost like that movie called Matrix, we are living in this false reality down here where we are supposed to fight over stupid things. And when you see the Planet from that vantage point which shows you the true picture, then it changes how you deal with other people, how you see your own life, how you see your role in the world and everything else.
Dodo: So what does “space” mean to you?
Ron: The very first thing that pops into my mind is everything outside the atmosphere of our Planet. Which is basically everything in the Universe, except us.
Dodo: Did you every have a longer period of fear, self doubt while you were in space?
Ron: No, not really. But there are segments on a space mission which are more dangerous than others and there are parts of a space mission when you are very intimately aware that you are in a very dangerous situation. For example the launch, re-entry and landing or the space walks. These are the moments when your training takes over and we are really focused on having a safe mission. We literally have our own lives and our crew mates’ lives in our hands, our lives are in each others’ hands.
Dodo: What was your most memorable activity during your space trip?
Ron: I do not think I could just pick one because there were so many incredible memories printed into my mind. Maybe the space walks, the time outside the space ship are very memorable, or re-entering into the atmosphere in the Soyuz space capsule. But I would also highlight the time you spent there with your crew mates and the human connection in this incredible unique environment is a very warm memory. Looking back to the Earth and particularly to certain parts of the Earth that are so beautiful that it takes your breath away are good memories. I think it is just impossible to pick one.
Dodo: It is very nice that you have so many vivid memories. And by knowing this I am truly interested that when the spaceship grounded/returned on Earth what was your very first thought, impression?
Ron: The feeling of Home.
Dodo: Did you miss sunlight in space? Do you prefer dark or light?
Ron: Obviously you have some light in space and you can also feel it on your face but there are many other things that define the beauty of life on our Planet that you miss. For example the feel of the breeze on your face, the sound of the birds, the scent of plants and flowers or going on hikes. It is interesting that all these things can be taken for granted, but actually you can not do any of them in space. However on the other side there are also many things that define beauty of life in space that I actually miss right now, for example the floating, being able to see our Planet, and the freedom that you have there. It is two sides of the coin.
Dodo: What is your most beautiful image of the Earth you safeguard in your heart?
Ron: Well, I have a lot of beautiful pictures of the Earth and a lot of them have back-stories. I have a picture for example of the Mediterranean that I took. What I really love about that picture is the contrast between the dark blues of the Mediterranean with the reds and tans of Northern Africa all framed by the curvature of the Earth and the thin atmosphere. And what was really interesting about that picture is that Libya was on the picture too.
I took the picture on the day that Tripoli fell during the Libyan Civil War. And for me what is really striking about it is that the picture is incredible beautiful, however if you zoomed into the microscopic level of the picture you would see it is not as beautiful as it appears.
“Ron’s focus is on finding new connection and collaborations that cross borders of all sorts that might just allow us to transform the world for the better…” — Peter Gabriel, musician
However I have a lot of inspiring pictures with individual stories which for me are personally very moving. This is the reason why I wanted to share many of them in my book The Orbital Perspective, I also talked about this particular picture as well in the book.
Dodo: Does your sense of time in space change?
Ron: I really do not think so, it did not for me. We just go by the clock, we wake up when the alarm rings and when it’s time for bed we go to bed. We have a very strict time schedule.
Dodo: Do you see anything other than the Earth? What else do you see out there?
Ron: You can see all kinds of things. You can see satellites flying by, other Planets, you can see lightning storms from above. I saw for example a meteor shooting below us.
Dodo: Do you think there is any connection between the outward space and the inner space we have as humans?
Ron: Of course there is. It is one continuum. There can be a greater awareness about this in space.
Dodo: That’s the good word you say, it is a “continuum” therefore all somehow linked together. So what does energy mean to you?
Ron: Of course my mind immediately goes to the scientific definition of what energy is. Energy is the ability to live, to think, to do things and without that you would not have life. For this reason for me energy means life.
Dodo: What is it to feel walking again after many months of gravity?
Ron: It feels heavy. Walking feels heavy after many weeks in space. Your bones and your muscles are not used to carrying weight, your stability and your balance is messed up. However it is kind of miraculous how fast you can regain the ability to walk and to start to feel the balance. I probably felt 70% within a couple hours being on Earth, 90% back to normal within a week, but almost 6 months until the full regain. So the last 10% was a really long time.
Dodo: What is your favourite colour and what does it mean for you?
Ron: I do not really have a favourite colour, but if I had to take one I would go with Blue. It means sky, atmosphere and ocean for me.
Dodo: Since a few years now there is an emergence of the private sectors competing for the space travels. What do you think how does this effect the traditional space travels, discoveries, research?
Ron: I think we are in a really exciting point in history in regards space travel and space exploration, and there are a lot of facets to that. The more companies, the more people and the more missions that are flown to low Earth orbit the more routine it will become and the more capability we will have, the more that frees up the big government space agencies to do what they’re charged to do in the first place which is space exploration, to go beyond the Low Earth Orbit, to explore the solar system. This is one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is that the more people that have that experience, the more people that get to see our Planet from that perspective, the better off the world will be, because they will see the world that we live in a differently. The more we study and more science we can do in space and the more observations of our Planet we can conduct, the more we will understand the Planet where we live, the more we will be able to understand Spaceship Earth and its life support systems. and we will be able to deal with things like climate change and severe weather patterns.
Dodo: If you would have the chance to form a message for the future generation, what would it be?
Ron: Probably “sorry”. Sorry for leaving this place in such a mess. Sorry that we did not realise that in reality we are all one human family, as part of one biosphere. Sorry that we did not realise yet that we are all brothers and sisters and sorry for the way we have treated each other and our Planet.