Q&A: Astronaut Ron Garan on Falcon Heavy and the future of space exploration

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  1. Garan has made 2,842 orbits of Earth and spent 178 days in space
  2. He calls SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch a “critical milestone”
  3. His Constellation project brings together international astronauts with “anybody who has hope for our future”
  4. He calls Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” photo an overlooked space milestone

The February 6 launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy “orbital heavy-lift launch vehicle” has re-ignited excitement for space exploration. Few observers are as qualified as retired NASA astronaut Ron Garan to speak about what SpaceX founder Elon Musk has called a “new space race.” (CNBC)

Garan is currently chief pilot for World View Enterprises, a private near-space exploration company headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. With his 2,842 orbits of Earth, 178 days in space, and four spacewalks, he is one of the most experienced astronauts in history.

As Jennifer Lawrence said when introducing him at the 2018 Unrig the System Summit in New Orleans, Garan is “a retired NASA astronaut, a decorated fighter pilot, test pilot, explorer, entrepreneur, and humanitarian. So we should all just go home …”

In fact, Garan is approachable and eager to share his definition of “home,” which broadens conventional understanding of that concept in much the way Elon Musk’s space-traveling Tesla Roadster redefines the nature of the parking spot.

WikiTribune: How does the Falcon Heavy launch compare with previous space travel milestones?

Garan: It’s a big milestone. Heavy-lift capability is a really important thing to have because it’s required to send anything with any kind of weight at all outside of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). So, if we want to go to the moon, if we want to go to Mars, or explore the solar system, and especially if we want to do that with humans, it requires this heavy-lift capability. … It’s a critical milestone especially since it was not done with a traditional government contract.

What other space milestones are important for you?

Garan: The space flight of Yuri Gagarin, becoming the first human to travel into space on April 12, 1961, and a few months later we had Al Shepard and, of course, the first American to orbit, John Glenn, then going from a one-person capsule to a two-person capsule in the Gemini program, the Apollo program with the landing on the moon, and the Space Shuttle program.

An overlooked milestone, from a human point of view, is Apollo 8. The first space mission to go to the moon and orbit the moon and return safely was an incredible technological accomplishment. But I think more important than a technological accomplishment was the accomplishment in the perspective that it achieved.

When the crew of Apollo 8 came up from the dark side of the moon, they saw something that had never been seen before with human eyes. They witnessed the Earth emerging from behind the Moon’s horizon. I mean, the first people in history to see the whole planet hanging in the blackness of space. And to capture that image for the rest of us — the famous iconic image of “Earthrise” — what was derived from that moment in time, a moment we have all but forgotten, is the truth of our existence on this planet. And the truth is that we are one people, traveling on one planet, toward one shared destiny. And for a brief moment in time the entire world was unified around that image.

How does public and political rhetoric shape space exploration?

Garan: The words we use and the phrases we use are really important. The International Space Station, and the space program in general, rises both literally and figuratively over, for the most part, over the nonsense that takes place on the ground: the political, cultural, and social bickering.

The space program in general has a unifying effect on people and the Space Station program was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and I think for good reason. It’s one of the most amazing examples of the power of international cooperation. Fifteen nations came together, some of them on the opposite sides of the Cold War, opposite sides of the space race, and somehow these nations found ways to set aside their differences and do this amazing space program … for the benefit of all humanity.

Expedition 27 crew members Ron Garan, Andre Borisenko and Aleksandr Samokutyayev
Ron Garan (left) flew aboard the International Space Station in 2011 with Russian cosmonauts Andre Borisenko (center) and Aleksandr Samokutyayev. Photo: James Blair – NASA – JSC

A question from the WikiTribune Twitter feed: What about an advance code of conduct for state and private space companies?

Garan: Well, we already have international treaties for space exploration. The biggest tenet is that space is to be used for peaceful purposes. I think certainly that framework of agreement needs to be expanded.

To borrow Elon Musk’s phrase, has the Falcon Heavy launched a “new space race”?

Garan: I don’t know if it’s a space race. Between who? I don’t know who those runners in the race are. But I think it’s opening up a new chapter in space exploration in that it’s reinventing what commercial entities can do. The more activity we (can) turn over in Low Earth Orbit to commercial activity, the more it frees up large government agencies like NASA, and the European Space Agency, the Russian Space Agency, etc. … to do what they’re chartered to do, and that’s explore, you know, push the boundaries. What Falcon Heavy shows is that it’s not just going to be Low Earth Orbit that commercial activities potentially could play a major role in.

What is the ideal relationship between government, business, and civil society in space exploration?

Garan: A government agency like NASA is capable of doing things that have a 50-year return on investment. To think way in the future and start putting things in place now. But, every time we have a change in administration that 50-year vision changes. That is a big issue we have to fix.

Commercial activities … their sweet spot is they can be nimble, they can be flexible, [they aren’t] over-burdened by incredible bureaucracy [and] can seek other markets. There are lots of complementary things that can develop from their efforts in the space programs.

Organizations, nonprofits, for-profit, and civil society — across the whole spectrum — can benefit from space technology. A good example is the International Space Apps Challenge. What they try to do is, through the hack-a-thon format, use space data — whether it’s from satellites or the Space Station or deep space probes — is to figure out ways to use that data for good. NASA produces terabytes and terabytes of data but not all the data is in a useable format. It’s hard to get at, it’s awkward, it’s clunky, and when you pair this wealth of data with innovative people on the ground … it’s really very powerful.

And it actually goes both ways because there are certain apps (where) you can have these satellites that are recording data, but you could also have people with a smartphone on the ground in that area also feeding information into the big picture. Civil society has an incredible capacity and role in synthesizing those two unique and very, very important perspectives.

Falcon Heavy isn’t human-rated. How will that affect the future of SpaceX and other private space companies?

Garan: I think the future of SpaceX will include a human-rated capability. My impression is that they’re saying it’s going to be delayed. It’s a very big process to have a government agency like NASA certify that this vehicle is safe enough to put humans on. So for whatever reason, probably financial, they have chosen to delay that process. I think it’s pretty sure that the long-term vision of SpaceX is to have the Falcon Heavy human-rated. Because in everything they’ve talked about, their long-range plans have the Falcon Heavy putting humans on the moon, on Mars, etc. And you can only do that if it’s human-rated.

Was launching Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space a gimmick or does it have a wider purpose?

Garan: SpaceX probably needed ballast for the rocket and thought this will be kind of cool. I think to some extent it’s a gimmick. I don’t think the Tesla guys advertise at all, [so] they probably had the greatest marketing campaign in history just now. … But, there’s a cultural benefit from it, in that it’s getting people’s attention. Not just the fact that there’s a Roadster in space, but the fact that the boosters came back and pinpoint landed and things like that. This gets people who are not yet bitten by the space bug to get interested in space.

What is your Constellation project?

We’re at www.constellation.earth and basically we’re putting together this coalition that at its core will have international astronauts from around the world, students, [and] anybody who has hope for our future … and thinks we can nudge the trajectory of society toward a more fruitful path. So, we’re putting together these folks who may come from different cultural backgrounds, national backgrounds, religious backgrounds, but they have shared a unique perspective of our planet from space. This perspective offers three simple points. The way to problem-solve into the future would be 1. To understand the interdependence of anything that we do. That anything that happens on one side of the planet affects everything else. 2. We need to think long-term. Not only about the next shareholder quarterly report, or election cycle, to be thinking more multigenerational. 3. We have to have profound collaboration. Openness and transparency, willingness to share data, to be willing to put your piece of the puzzle onto the board.

Is the idea to get us back to that “Earthrise” and “one shared destiny” perspective you talked about?

We’re coming up this Christmas Eve on the 50th anniversary of “Earthrise.” (In anticipation of) the 100-year anniversary, we’re asking people and organizations what should and could the world look like in 2068? Not necessarily what type of technology will we have but what principles do we as a society want to be operating under? What is the operating system of our planet for 2068? And what’s the roadmap to get there?

Earth Rise as taken from Apollo 8, December 24, 1968
The famed “Earthrise” image taken from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Something that “had never been seen before with human eyes,” said Garan. Photo: NASA/Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders

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