An Astronaut Explains The Importance Of Perspective

We all have moments like this in our lives, where something shifts, clicks into place. For me it was in June 2008, when I clamped my feet to the end of the robotic Canadarm2 on the International Space Station (ISS) and was flown through a maneuver that we called the Windshield Wiper, which took me in a long arc above the space station and back. As I approached the top of this arc, it was as if time stood still, and I was flooded with both emotion and awareness.

But as I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.

In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn't help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don't have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.

Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective, something I've come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.

It is possible to have peace in the world, to end wars, violence, and terrorism, but this can be done only once poverty is wiped from the face of the earth. And the good news is that it is also possible to lift the entire population of the world out of destitute poverty.

I don't claim to have a magic solution to all of these problems. Poverty and conflict are very complex issues, and I don't want to oversimplify these problems. But if we can address these issues correctly, if we can figure out ways to work together, it can propel us on a path to a more peaceful, safe, and prosperous world. One step in that unified direction is to put a greater emphasis on doing things that take a long-term focus and are financially sustainable.

I returned to Earth after that first space mission with a call to action. I could no longer accept the status quo on our planet. We have within our grasp the resources and technology necessary to solve many, if not all, of the problems facing our planet — and yet we don't.

I continued to ponder this during my second journey to space, which began in April 2011. I spent half of 2011 living and working aboard the International Space Station, and I spent most of any available free time I had with my face plastered to a window, gazing back at Earth. As I watched our beautiful planet, I wondered what the world would be like in the next fifty years, and I pondered a question that gnawed at me constantly: If we have the resources and the technology to solve the challenges we face, why do they still persist?

Up there, hovering above Earth, I came to believe that the problem lies primarily in our inability to collaborate effectively on a global scale. There are millions of organizations around the world working to improve life on Earth, but for the most part these organizations are not engaged in a unified, coordinated effort. Unfortunately, in many cases, destructive competition does not lead to better products or services but only to rising prices and other detriments.

We already possess all the technology we need to enable truly consistent, world-changing global collaboration. Our real challenge lies in demonstrating how vital and valuable such collaboration is, despite the real and perceived risks. We are all in this together, so we should share common goals, and the only way we are going to overcome the challenges facing our world is by working together.

An effective collaboration mechanism will pair critical challenges with vital solutions, bringing together unique pieces of the puzzle and enabling us all to learn from each other's successes and failures, making organizations' technologies and approaches considerably more effective than they would be otherwise. Since multiple organizations are looking to develop tools to enable collaboration, it is critical to unify those efforts.

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 and instead work together toward common goals. After all, we are all riding through the universe together on this spaceship we call Earth.

I imagined a world where open, transparent collaborations become the engines that fuel tremendous economic growth and help us obliterate many of the problems facing our planet. I imagined that individuals and organizations that currently engage in destructive competition, secretive dealings, or corruption would begin to see themselves being left behind and would be compelled to adapt, evolve, and take on a much more effective collaborative focus in order to keep up with the economic growth that collaboration would bring. I imagined a world where we are all unified in the belief that by working together we can accomplish anything.

For almost all of human history, the vast majority of people believed that it was impossible to fly to the moon — simply because it had never been done before. Human ingenuity and human determination proved that it was possible. Today, the majority of people believe that it is impossible to solve many of the world's problems.

But if we adopt the same collaborative mind-set and practices that got us to the moon and back, and that built the International Space Station, we can alleviate poverty — and do much more.

Reprinted from The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles Copyright © 2015 by Ron Garan. Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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