Tips & Stories

Astronaut Ron Garan’s space-inspired lessons on collaboration

Astronaut Ron Garan's space-inspired lessons on collaboration

Posted by Taylor Pipes on 13 Jul 2015

Posted by Taylor Pipes on 13 Jul 2015

It would be a challenge to find someone who has a more beautiful office than Ron Garan.

As a NASA astronaut, Ron has traveled more than seventy-one million miles, made over two thousand orbits around the earth, and has logged 27 hours in four spacewalks outside the International Space Station. Now retired, Ron’s final assignment with NASA was working on the Open Innovation Initiative that promotes collaboration with external teams to solve space-related technology challenges.

Ron combined the unique vantage point that only someone who’s circled the earth from space could have with lessons learned both from working alongside other nations to build the International Space Station, to write “The Orbital Perspective.” In his recently published book, Ron examines how humanity can come together to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

We spoke with Ron about what working in space is like, how it formed his macro perspective on collaboration, and what lessons on working together we can all learn from his book.


Can you give us some background on your book project, “The Orbital Perspective?”

“The Orbital Perspective” really is a book about where we can go in the future if we choose to do so.

It is about taking a big picture perspective, applying the lessons learned about collaboration from the building of the International Space Station (ISS), and putting it all in the context of our global society and rapidly developing technologies.

I launched into space in 2011 with a belief that we already have the resources, technology, solutions and pieces of the puzzle to solve many, if not all of the problems on our planet. I spent six months in space wondering if that were true.

From space, one of the perspectives you get is just how interconnected we all are. We are all in this together. We are all riding through the universe on the space shuttle we call earth. That is what I call the orbital perspective.


Can you share how your work on the ISS and with the Open Innovation Initiative has shaped the way you think about collaboration specifically?

Any large bureaucracy is stovepiped to the point where there are major inefficiencies.

Everybody has their own little fiefdoms that set up boundaries and barriers to collaboration which basically decreases efficiency. People are reluctant to stand outside of what they’re comfortable with. But times are changing.

It’s not just that manufacturing has to cooperate internally with marketing, but they need to collaborate with everybody in the value chain including their customers and competitors—anyone who can bring value to the equation. That’s not the way most businesses think, but the successful businesses of the future will think that way. Tools like Evernote help bridge that gap.


When did this all come together for you?

There wasn’t a single moment in Space when all of a sudden these angels started singing and I had this epiphany. But there were several experiences when taken over the context of many months in space, I think really did lead to this shift.

Once, I was on a space walk on the end of a robotic arm, 100 feet above the Space Station looking down at this amazing accomplishment of humanity against the backdrop of this indescribably beautiful planet. I was hit with the enormity of this thing and I thought wow, “If we could do that in space with 15 nations, some of which were not always the best of friends, imagine what we can do together on the surface.”


How does all of this fit into a global, terrestrial view on working with one another?

If you look at things from the orbital perspective, the internet and all of our connected devices are the nerve center of spaceship earth. It can align discrete points of creativity and innovation in new ways. It’s never been easier to incorporate the ideas of people around the world regardless of their location or political ideology. There are efforts to connect the five billion people that are not presently part of the global equation to the internet. Once we do that, we are going to find solutions to the problems we face that we’ve never dreamed of, coming from places we have never heard of. Collaboration is not walking in the door with this idea that we have all the answers.


How should individuals working on teams here on earth be thinking about collaboration in their own teams?

I think the biggest thing is everybody talks about self-help books and building your legacy. Rather than seeking a legacy, I would seek impact. if you seek impact, it’s not encumbered by getting credit for everything.

Building a legacy attracts the baggage that makes sure the person seeking the credit gets the recognition for what they’ve done. That is a serious barrier to collaboration.

True cooperation and collaboration means people are working together towards a common goal. The common goal is more important than individual success. In corporate terms, is marketing meeting its goals at the expense of manufacturing or vice versa? In space terms, are the mission control guys achieving their goals at the expense of the crew or scientists?


Is there one key takeaway you’d like everyone reading to consider?

Unity node is the central connector of the Space Station—it’s a module on the Space Station. All the lines of communication and life-support flow through Unity.

It’s not a central database, it’s a pass-through. What we need on our planet is a similar unity mode for Spaceship Earth. We need a conduit for life-saving data so resources can flow and connect these discrete efforts as a unified action.

Evernote is a step in that direction, of course.



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