Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Ron Garan Saw in Space

Review by Bill Doughty

Former Air Force pilot Col. Ron Garan was one of the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery as former Navy aviator Capt. Mark Kelly maneuvered and docked the craft with the International Space Station (ISS) in the spring of 2008.

A few days later Garan stepped into the "vacuum of space" after listening to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

What Garan found and what it means for the rest of us is revealed in "The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015)
"As I looked back at our Earth from the orbital perspective, I saw a world where natural and human-defined boundaries shrank. I saw a world becoming more and more interconnected and collaborative – a world where the exponential increase in technology is making the "impossible" possible on a daily basis. Thinking about the next fifty years, I imagined a world where people and organizations set aside their differences and their destructive competitive inclinations – such as striving to maximize economic growth at all cost, or pillaging society for the personal gain of a few – and instead work together toward common goals. After all, we are all riding through the universe together on this spaceship we call Earth. We are all interconnected, we are all in this together, and we are all family."
For most of history, people generally thought that stepping onto the moon was impossible. But Navy veteran President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans in September 1962 to "look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond."

Under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon (both also former naval officers), JFK's challenge was achieved within seven years. As to who "won" the space race, Garan makes a case that the world won and is still winning.

The International Space Station. NASA.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have worked closely in space: Apollo/Soyuz, Mir/Freedom/Atlantis and now the International Space Station.

Fifteen nations collaborated to build and support the ISS, which is as big as a football field and surely one of the great human-built wonders of the world. ISS became a reality because of an agreement in June 1992 signed by President George H.W. Bush (another Navy veteran) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

How did cooperation overtake competition in space?

Both sides replaced attitudes of superiority, condescension and belligerence with humility, respect and understanding. Trust, openness and a willingness to learn led to "extended empathy" and "effective collaboration" – ideals Garan examines in this book.
"Collaboration begins with mutual understanding and respect ... One major problem in the early U.S.-Soviet/Russian collaboration was misunderstanding on both sides. Whether it was a language barrier, an unfamiliar way of doing things, or an underestimation of the other side's abilities, overcoming such misunderstandings required both sides to move outside their comfort zones and to really absorb another culture. There was a need on both sides to understand a style of communication that sometimes was very different, in addition to the language itself, and to respect others' limitations in these areas."
Photo by Col. Ron Garan, NASA.
Different, he says, does not mean inferior.

Does Garan's optimism sound naive? Not if you've seen the world from his "orbital perspective."
"To say the view was breathtaking would be an understatement. The first thing that struck me was how thin the atmosphere appeared, as if the entire planet were wrapped in a paper-thin blanket. And in that moment, I was hit with the realization that this delicate layer of atmosphere is all that protects every living thing on Earth from perishing in the harshness of space. So, although this was an incredibly overwhelming visual experience, it also was much, much more than just a visual experience. For me, it was a profound feeling of detachment, with a simultaneous connectedness. I felt a visceral, physical separation from the only world I had known since birth, while at the same time i was able to see that world with my own eyes."
Years later, Garan's friend Wasfia Nazreen climbed Mount Everest as a part of a campaign to raise awareness of women's rights issues. Her perspective – an overriding feeling of gratitude – was one Garan shares: "immense gratitude" that leads to a sense of responsibility to act responsibly as part of a collaborative community: "a community of trust working together with a shared purpose – and a philosophy of contribution."

The goals are tangible and interrelated: clean water, renewable energy and elimination of poverty, which in turn reduces regional conflicts. The tools include innovation, communication, education and empowerment.

Garan, an avid photographer, caught a Perseid meteor shower from above. NASA.
Garan gives examples of how people can work together to achieve a common goal, including in crises. Orbital perspective can be achieved from above, on or beneath the Earth.

When 33 Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days in 2010, the world focused on a common goal: rescue. Campo Esperanza ("hope") was set up, and NASA and the international community responded. The Chilean navy – with help from NASA – designed the extraction device.
"In all cases, people rallied around the common cause. The overarching goal united people from around the world into a community with a shared purpose and motivated diverse groups to work together systematically and selflessly toward the rescue of the men. In short, the effort represented collaboration from an orbital perspective."
Garan's experience with ISS inspired him to start Impact CoLab to help "propel the good that others are doing."

Astronauts Scott Kelly, Ron Garan and Mark Kelly.
"The Orbital Perspective" follows in the path of works by Buckminster Fuller and Carl Sagan, both of whom are quoted by Garan. Can we see the "big picture," work together and find hope for the future of our planet? Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus (who received the prize with Malala Yousafzai) writes the preface of the book and challenges readers to use the perspective and commit to solving seemingly impossible problems.

At one time it seemed impossible to go to the moon or to prevent another World War. Today it may seem impossible to prevent the effects global climate change, deal with terrorism by radical extremists, or colonize Mars.

But as JFK said in September 1962 – speaking of space: "... we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding."

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