Ron Garan may have left his career as a NASA astronaut in 2013, but a part of him will always be in orbit. Garan—one of around 500 living people who have been to space—has made it his mission to tell the masses about the important lessons he gleaned among the cosmos. In this as-told-to, he shares how his expeditions have shaped his perspective and what he wishes we all knew about this amazing planet we all share.
I've wanted to be an astronaut since July 20, 1969, when I was a small boy watching those first footsteps on the moon along with the rest of the world. Though I didn't think about it in these terms back then, I knew on some level that we had just become a different species—one that was no longer confined to our own planet. And I knew I wanted to become a part of that group of explorers who were able to step off Earth and look back on it from above.
Since then, I've gone on three missions with NASA—two in space and one at the bottom of the sea. The first was in 2006 on Aquarius—the world's only undersea science laboratory. Then, in 2008, I flew on the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station on a two-week construction mission, during which I completed three spacewalks. I spent half of 2011 living and working on board the space station after launching from Kazakhstan in a Russian rocket.
Each of those experiences helped shape my perspective on our planet. They're all pieces of the same puzzle.
The first time I saw Earth from the vantage point of space, I was filled with an incredible sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the planet that we've all been given and gratitude for the opportunity to see it from this perspective, from what I call the "Orbital Perspective." Our planet is an iridescent biosphere teeming with life. It's a shining jewel, and seeing it from space shows you just how interconnected everything is—how interdependent we are on everyone and everything around us. From up there, I became very aware of the fact that we're all in this together.
But then I remembered that, though this view is beautiful, life on earth isn't always as beautiful as it appears from space. It hit me that one of the reasons we haven't been able to overcome some of our biggest challenges—biodiversity loss, poverty, terrorism, climate change, you name it—is our inability to effectively collaborate on a global scale. We tend to treat issues as discrete events, individual challenges. Instead, we need to recognize that everything is interdependent and interrelated. You can't solve huge problems in a vacuum. They need to be solved holistically.
So everything I've done with my life since 2013 has been done with the overall objective of figuratively transporting people to this higher vantage point where all the pieces of the puzzle come into this view. I left NASA, my dream job, the job I worked my entire life to get, to spread this message. I've written books, taught online courses to students from over 50 different countries, helped produce documentaries, and launched startups. I also started a job as the chief pilot of World View Enterprises, which is working to one day bring people to the edge of space in high-altitude balloons, so I'll no longer be transporting them just figuratively, but literally.
I try to speak to people using undeniable truths that when put in the proper context serve as powerful tools to help flip people’s perspective allowing them to see the true nature of the world we live in. This can also serve as a path through all the cultural and political bickering and highlight common ground, points that we all agree on—such as, we should be protecting our beautiful planet. Not just because it provides for and supports all life, but also because it supports the economy. The economy is the wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.
With each project, I want to get the point across that we should be zooming out on our experience here on Earth and thinking in the bigger picture. For instance, sometimes I'll be driving in my car, but then I'll start to imagine what the city looks like from above, and the state, and the country, and the continent, and the world. And I'll also zoom out temporally and consider a long timeline. I'll remember that every action I take, every word I say, doesn't just affect the next few minutes of my life. Everything has an effect on the overall trajectory of our world. Living with this constant awareness that there's something bigger happening is incredibly game-changing.
It makes it so, at the end of the day, you don't have to put your head on the pillow thinking, "Did I save the world today?" All you need to consider is, "Did I have more positive nudges to the trajectory of my life and our society than negative ones today? Did my words and actions put me, and our society, in a better position than they were in yesterday?"