The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles

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For astronaut Ron Garan, living on the International Space Station was a powerful, transformative experience—one that he believes holds the key to solving our problems here on Earth.

On space walks and through windows, Garan was struck by the stunning beauty of the Earth from space but sobered by knowing how much needed to be done to help this troubled planet. And yet on the International Space Station, Garan, a former fighter pilot, was working work side by side with Russians, who only a few years before were “the enemy.” If fifteen nationalities could collaborate on one of the most ambitious, technologically complicated undertakings in history, surely we can apply that kind of cooperation and innovation toward creating a better world. That spirit is what Garan calls the “orbital perspective.”

Garan vividly conveys what it was like learning to work with a diverse group of people in an environment only a handful of human beings have ever known. But more importantly, he describes how he and others are working to apply the orbital perspective here at home, embracing new partnerships and processes to promote peace and combat hunger, thirst, poverty, and environmental destruction. This book is a call to action for each of us to care for the most important space station of all: planet Earth. You don't need to be an astronaut to have the orbital perspective. Garan's message of elevated empathy is an inspiration to all who seek a better world.

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Introduction A Shift in Perspective

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A Shift in Perspective

This is a book about perspective—the perspective of seeing our planet from space, the perspective of working on development projects on the ground, and the orbital perspective, which synthesizes them both and is the focus of this book.

There usually are two ways to define the word perspective. It may refer to the rendering or interpretation of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plane, or it may refer to an attitude toward something, a point of view. Both of these definitions come into play in our discussion of the orbital perspective. Historically, for the most part, our perspective has been two-dimensional. Although we know that the world is not flat, a true perspective on a three-dimensional, interrelated reality is usually beyond our immediate awareness. Nonetheless, the real world is not two-dimensional, and to solve the problems facing our global society we need to start living in the real world. Two-dimensional thinking focuses on the next quarterly report or election campaign. Three-dimensional thinking, the orbital perspective, brings to the forefront the long-term and global effects of every decision. Two-dimensional thinking prioritizes capturing market share, whereas three-dimensional thinking looks to expand the market itself and does not particularly care who’s got the biggest piece of the pie.

 

One Humanity’s Home in the Heavens

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Humanity’s Home in the Heavens

On July 17, 1975, at 7:19 p.m. GMT, Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov and American astronaut Tom Stafford reached across the hatches of their docked Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft and shook hands 140 miles above Earth. The event, which represented the end of a long, expensive space race and the beginning of a movement toward the peaceful exploration of space, was the end result of an agreement forged in May 1972, when President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin formalized a commitment to making a peaceful joint program of space exploration a reality. Speaking on the significance of this agreement, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev noted, “The Soviet and American spacemen will go up into outer space for the first major joint scientific experiment in the history of mankind. They know that from outer space our planet looks even more beautiful. It is big enough for us to live peacefully on it, but it is too small to be threatened by nuclear war.”1

 

Two Space, the Shared Frontier

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Space, the Shared Frontier

Early one morning in March 1994, thirty-five-year-old NASA flight surgeon Mike Barratt was riding in the backseat of a Soviet-era Volga with a cracked windshield. He was traveling from Moscow to meet with his counterpart at Roscosmos, Russian flight doctor Igor Shekhovtsov. Barratt, who in 2000 would be selected into the eighteenth class of astronauts, along with me and fifteen others, was assigned as the flight surgeon for astronaut Norm Thagard’s historic first U.S. mission aboard Mir. As flight surgeon, Barratt was responsible for coordinating all medical aspects of the mission and ensuring that Thagard met preflight medical requirements and stayed healthy before and during the mission. Barratt also was responsible for all the medical experiments that would be performed by and on Thagard. While in space, astronauts serve both as lab technicians, conducting and monitoring experiments, and as lab rats, the subject of experiments. The micro-g environment provides a unique opportunity to further our understanding of the human body.

 

Three Lessons in Collaboration from the Iss Program

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Lessons in Collaboration from the ISS Program

In looking at the history and operation of the International Space Station partnership, certain lessons bubble to the top. For instance, we saw how an initial lack of respect or mutual understanding on both sides led to conflict or confusion in the early days. We also saw the importance of effective information sharing and communication.

Effective collaboration requires mutual understanding and a commitment on both sides to forming relationships and working toward the long-term success of the partnership. Partners who put in the necessary work and are in it for the long run develop real relationships and establish trust. As a result, not only do such partnerships survive when the inevitable bumps in the road occur, they usually are strengthened, and this enables the partners to achieve great things.

Collaboration begins with mutual understanding and respect. As we saw, 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 people on 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.

 

Four One Moment in Space

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One Moment in Space

I lay on my back, surprised at how calm and focused I felt, strapped to four and a half million pounds of explosives. Years of training, preparation, hard work, and prayer had led me to this moment, on May 31, 2008. Although I was a trained and qualified shuttle pilot, I was flying on this, my first flight, as Mission Specialist 2 (MS2), the flight engineer. My journey to this seat had begun about a year and a half earlier, when the chief of the Astronaut Office, Kent Rominger, sent a note to all the pilots in my astronaut class asking if we would consider undertaking our first flight as a mission specialist. I told him I would be happy and honored to fly wherever needed, which apparently was the correct answer. Around a month later I was penciled in for my first spaceflight assignment. As MS2, I was seated between and behind Commander Mark Kelly and Pilot Ken “Hock” Ham, and to the left of Karen Nyberg, who was MS1.

Sitting there, I felt some apprehension, of course. But I was also reassured by the idea that what we were about to do would make a contribution to humanity and, at this point, that the outcome of the launch was largely out of our hands. The primary mission objective of STS-124 was to deliver the central pressurized laboratory of the Japanese Kibo (“Hope”) module and its associated external robotic arm to the International Space Station. The Kibo laboratory is the largest pressurized module on the ISS and includes many stations for scientific research. It now also includes an exposed research facility—the “porch”—which is fully exposed to space.

 

Five the Orbital Perspective

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The Orbital Perspective

There have been many attempts to describe the shift in perception that astronauts often experience when viewing Earth from orbit or the moon. Perhaps the most comprehensive is Frank White’s book The Overview Effect, which was first published in 1987.1 In the first edition, Frank interviewed sixteen astronauts about their experiences in space, and he coined the term “overview effect” and developed it into a theory to describe the perspective shift that some of these space travelers experienced.

If the overview effect is a change in perception that one gets from physically seeing Earth from space and in space, then the orbital perspective derives from that experience and drives what we do with it. The orbital perspective is the call to action that results from the overview effect. The key for me is that the orbital perspective involves taking action. Seeing Earth from the vantage point of space not only provides a unique perspective but also can trigger a response that leads to a desire to make the world a better place for all its inhabitants.

 

Six The Key Is “We”

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The Key Is “We”

I recently attended a national summit on infrastructure at the Harvard Business School. One of the speakers, Senator Barbara Mikulski, told a story about how every month the women of the senate—Democrats and Republicans—meet for dinner. They meet without staff, without memos, and without the normal overhead that comes with political meetings in Washington. The dinners are designed to be all about relationships and listening. The idea is to create an atmosphere in which the senators do not judge each other. Senator Mikulski felt this to be a very powerful tool to break down barriers to cooperation and to provide a common ground that will serve as the relational foundation for working together. This is a great worm’s eye view strategy, especially in this case, because the strategy has the power to overturn misconceptions, and in the extreme, to reduce the likelihood that one side will demonize the other.

When we pull back to the orbital perspective, we look not just at a group of people trying to make a difference but also at organizations, nongovernment organizations, and nations that can do the same. When we step back, the things that we share in common become more visible. If demonization, misunderstanding, and misconceptions can be overturned, common ground can be found, and that common ground can serve as a bridge toward the solutions to the challenges we all face.

 

Seven Camp Hope

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Camp Hope

On a late starlit evening in September 2010, NASA psychologist Al Holland and his colleagues, exhausted and lost in their thoughts, were traveling in a van along dirt and gravel roads through the high-elevation Atacama Desert en route to the Chilean town of Copiapó. The group had just left the feverish activity of the dusty Campo Esperanza (Camp Hope), where hundreds of workers were laboring to free thirty-three miners trapped below 2,300 feet of hard rock. Holland had the hectic image of Campo Esperanza still fresh in his mind. The scene reminded him of something out of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a little valley sheltering huge lights that pointed at a single spot, with activity going on around the clock. That day, like every day since Holland and his group had arrived in Chile, had been insanely busy and filled with intense emotion.

As the van picked its way along the dirt roads, someone in the group noticed a couple of planets visible in the night sky and suggested they stop to take a look. As Holland and his colleagues piled out of the van and into the driest desert on Earth (also known as “the window to the universe,” for its clear night skies), the contrast between the feverish intensity of Camp Hope and the grandeur of the new scene unfolding before them was palpable. “The Milky Way was just painted over the top of low black hills at night,” Holland said. “It stretched in a great arc from a set of silhouetted hills behind us all the way across the sky to the hills in front of us. It was incredibly cool and quiet, dead quiet. This has been happening for millennia. For billions of years you’ve had this same coolness.”

 

Eight Arrested Development

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Arrested Development

The rescue of the Chilean miners, like the ISS collaboration and the U.S.–Russia partnership before it, was a great success and a great example of the orbital perspective in action. Despite our technology and resources, however, we still have many crucial problems, and in general we seem to be unable or unwilling to collaborate on a global scale. This is true even in fields such as development work, where we would expect to find—and often do find—a greater percentage of people who understand the orbital perspective and who practice elevated empathy.

In the fall of 2004, I met a twenty-one-year-old student intern from the University of Colorado named Evan Thomas, an aerospace engineering undergraduate working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I was interested in development work, and Evan had already amassed a fairly impressive amount of it. He had traveled the globe to such places as Cuba, Nepal, and Vietnam and was the founder of the Johnson Space Center chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-JSC).

 

Nine Mass Collaboration

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Mass Collaboration

Our global society is producing data at an exponentially increasing rate. Data enables decision makers to determine the most effective ways to address their most critical challenges. Countries, cities, and communities that can identify key issues, determine where their most vulnerable citizens are located, and understand the needs they face are equipped to accurately determine how to best apply limited resources to achieve solutions. But data by itself is insufficient. We also need tools to analyze that data and to translate the analysis into more effective and targeted approaches that can dramatically improve society’s ability to meet our grand challenges.

Fortunately, along with the dramatic increase in our ability to produce data, there also have been recent developments in the power and ability of tools to analyze, make use of, and communicate the insights of that data worldwide. Among these developments is the use of crowdsourcing to process data in what is commonly known as a hackathon or codeathon. These mass collaborations are organized around various themes and were born out of a public–private initiative called Random Hacks of Kindness. Other ingenious mass collaboration tools include ReCAPTCHA and Duolingo, which tap the previously unutilized, distributed efforts of millions of people to perform massive tasks—often without users knowing they are taking part in a mass collaboration. These efforts share in common a desire to make use of massive data stores to create social and/or environmental good, and such data sets may come from anywhere, including NASA.

 

Conclusion A Web of Trust

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A Web of Trust

Like the U.S.–Russian space program that led up to it, the planning and construction of the International Space Station required the partners involved to overcome some unique challenges. The collaboration brought together fifteen nations with different bureaucratic and political processes and differing national objectives and interests, geographically separated on three continents. Many key personnel didn’t share a common language or culture, and there were complexities related to intellectual property issues. Because almost all space technology has a potential dual military use, the partners also had to work within the overly restrictive mandates of the United States’ International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

In addition to these cultural, national, and geographic obstacles, the partners had to collaboratively design a massive, complex space station and figure out how to run it. They had to agree on who would supply which parts and capabilities to the station, how the day-to-day operations would be run, both in space and in interconnected mission control rooms all around the world, and they had to collaborate on the scientific research that would be conducted on board. Finally, they had to collaboratively execute all those plans and designs. For the most part, this collaboration was enabled through international treaties and formal contracts, which required documentation of the smallest details, and the nature of the program itself dictated that the processes and procedures established should be designed to last for a long time.

 

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