The Orbital Perspective

Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles

Ron Garan (Author) | Muhammad Yunus (Foreword by)

Publication date: 01/05/2015

The Orbital Perspective
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.

Read more and meet author below

Read An Excerpt


(member price: $25.16)
Free shipping on all orders from the BK Publishers store.
Or find a local bookseller with Indiebound.

Additional Links:

Buy On Audible
Hire Ron Garan

Other Available Formats and Editions


(member price: $19.57)


(member price: $19.57)
Not available: IOT , GBR , IRL , IMN , JOR , AUS , NZL , ZAF
Bulk Discounts
Rights Information

Featured Books

Invisible Martyrs

“This is an extraordinary book, written by an extraordinary woman. Qazi is a master storyteller, capturing the emotion as well as...

Leadership and Self-Deception

This third edition of an international bestseller—over 2 million copies sold worldwide and translated into 33 languages—details how its powerful insights...

More About This Product


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.

Back to Top ↑

Meet the Author & Other Product Contributors

Visit Author Page - Ron Garan

Ron is a highly decorated Fighter Pilot and Test Pilot, Explorer, Entrepreneur and Humanitarian who believes that appropriately designed and targeted social enterprise can solve many of the problems facing our world.

Ron is a retired NASA astronaut who has traveled 71,075,867 miles in 2,842 orbits of our planet during more than 178 days in space and 27 hours and 3 minutes of EVA during four spacewalks. He flew on both the US Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Ron is also an aquanaut and participated in the joint NASA-NOAA, NEEMO-9 mission, an exploration research mission held in Aquarius, the world's only undersea research laboratory. During this mission he and the crew spent 18 continuous days living and working on the ocean floor.

Ron's last U.S. government assignment was in NASA's Open Innovation Initiative, which seeks to increase openness, transparency, collaboration, and innovation within government. In this capacity, Ron has been involved in many global mass collaboration and citizen science programs.

Working in partnership with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Ron led an effort called Unity Node to develop a universal, open source, collaborative platform to enable humanitarian organizations around the world to work together toward their common goals.

Outside his work with the US government, Ron is also a serial entrepreneur and has founded multiple business enterprises and social-impact focused startups including Manna Energy Ltd. which was created to leverage the $120B/year Carbon Market to finance humanitarian projects in developing countries. Manna Energy Ltd. is the first organization in the world to successfully register a United Nations Clean Development Mechanism carbon credit program for water treatment. Manna also developed, under contract with a partner organization the largest water treatment intervention conducted by a private organization - a four million person program operating in Kenya, completely funded by carbon credits and is currently working on a three million person program in Rwanda.

Ron represented Manna Energy Ltd. as one of ten global innovators in the field of water purification during the 2009 Launch-Water forum (sponsored by NASA, US State Dept., USAID, and Nike) and is a member of the Launch Council.

Foreword by Muhammad Yunus

Back to Top ↑

Table of Contents

Foreword by Muhammad Yunus


Introduction: A Shift in Perspective

Part I: Looking Skyward
1. Humanity's Home in the Heavens
2. Space, the Shared Frontier
3. Lessons in Collaboration from the ISS Program

PART II: Looking Earthward
4. One Moment in Space
5. The Orbital Perspective
6. The Key Is “We”

PART III: Looking Forward
7. Camp Hope
8. Arrested Development
9. Mass Collaboration

Conclusion: A Web of Trust




About the Author

Back to Top ↑


The Orbital Perspective


Humanity’s Home in the Heavens

image 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

The Apollo–Soyuz mission was heralded as a breakthrough in Cold War diplomacy, but the collaboration was short-lived, and the end of the mission marked the end of the two countries’ real cooperation in human spaceflight for nearly two decades. According to George Abbey, former head of the Johnson Space Center, the Soviets wanted to continue working with the Americans on joint missions after the Apollo–Soyuz mission, but the Americans did not wish to continue. Instead, the Americans saw their own space shuttle on the horizon, with its revolutionary promise of relatively safe, inexpensive access to space and a flight rate of fifty to sixty missions per year. It was envisioned that the shuttle would herald a new era of U.S. space exploration, including enabling the construction of a massive space station. With all these things on the horizon, the United States didn’t see a compelling reason to continue to partner with the Soviets.

Over the next two decades, the Soviets continued their pioneering work in space station launch and design, which had begun with the launch of the first space station in history, Salyut 1, in 1971. A couple of years after the Apollo–Soyuz docking, in 1977, the Soviets created the second generation Salyut station, followed in 1986 by the construction of Space Station Mir, the name of which means “peace” or “world.” Meanwhile, the United States was building its space shuttle and pursuing its goal of building Space Station Freedom.

Unfortunately, the space shuttle would never live up to its promise of being inexpensive, safe, or easy to operate at a high frequency, and because of the shuttle’s shortfalls, as well as a change in political will and funding, the dream of constructing a massive, highly capable U.S. space station languished. Since the early 1980s, roughly $11.4 billion had been spent,2 and the station had been redesigned several times, but by 1992 no hardware had been delivered to space, and congressional support was drying up. Space Station Freedom was most likely going to die before a single component had been launched, and even if it didn’t get canceled, it would be over budget and way behind schedule. On the Russian side, Mir, which was scheduled to be superseded by Mir-2, was also in trouble. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent financial problems, it was apparent that the Russians would not be able to afford to launch and assemble Mir-2.

Thus, by the early nineties the geopolitical and space program planets aligned and the time was ripe to readdress a Russian–U.S. partnership in space exploration. The rudiments of the planned Space Station Freedom and the planned Space Station Mir-2 could be repurposed into an international program. The Americans would gain experience docking shuttles to a large station, and with the Russians, would develop the docking system that would eventually be used on the International Space Station (ISS).

The plan, which became known as the Shuttle–Mir program, immediately leveraged both the U.S. and Russian space programs. All of a sudden, we would have two spacecraft capable of carrying humans into space, and each space program would bring unique solutions to different pieces of the puzzle, adding value to the partnership. The Americans had little experience in operating a space station; the Russians had vast experience. The Russians also knew how to build modules cheaply, and billions of dollars could potentially be saved by merging the Russian and American space station programs. The American space program, on the other hand, was much better funded, and the space shuttle could provide badly needed resupply to the aging Mir and serve as the long-term workhorse for construction of the ISS. Two big programs that were headed toward the cliff could be salvaged.


In June 1992, President George H. W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement, which evolved under the Clinton administration, to undertake the Shuttle–Mir program, the first phase in a long-term plan for cooperation in space. Plans to build the U.S.-led Space Station Freedom would be abandoned and Russia would join a new partnership to design and build what eventually became the International Space Station. This program, in the eyes of politicians in both countries, solved myriad problems. Russia saw its partnership with the United States, Europe, Canada, and Japan as a way to achieve acceptance by Western nations while keeping its deteriorating Mir program going. Perhaps the most important benefit, in the U.S. view, was that pumping money into the Russian space program would discourage Russian rocket scientists and missile technology from being exported to countries with a desire to do harm to the United States and its allies. This was a particular concern, given the recent collapse of the Soviet Union and the uncertain future in that country.

A number of technical meetings followed the Shuttle–Mir agreement. In July 1993, for instance, Yuri Semenov, chief of Energia, the now-commercial former Soviet Design Bureau, held a symposium in the United States to discuss Mir and to attract interest in and business to the Russian space station. Semenov gave approval for the top Energia people associated with Mir to attend and, for the first time, to speak openly about the space station and its capabilities. It was an extraordinary, historic, and successful symposium—a rich technical exposé of this orbiting facility that had been shrouded in secrecy.

Following the symposium, the Russians and Americans began a series of meetings in Crystal City, Virginia. These meetings occurred in a nondescript, nameless conference room in a building that both the Russian and American participants referred to as oden, oden, oden, because ah-dyin image is the Russian word for “one” and the building’s street number was 111. The goal of these meetings was to explore ways the United States and Russia could collaborate in space and would prove to be a critical turning point in the two nations’ destiny in space. These initial technical meetings both indicated and fostered a real desire to work together, which is probably best illustrated by the lengths to which people from both countries were willing go to ensure the project kept moving forward.

For instance, although Russia was in a state of turmoil and the country was seemingly falling apart, George Abbey, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, and other NASA personnel traveled to Moscow in October 1993 to meet with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, and negotiate Russia’s entrance into the ISS program. The group arrived in the middle of a ten-day conflict in which, according to government estimates, 187 people were killed and 437 were wounded; estimates from nongovernment sources put the death toll as high as two thousand. President Yeltsin, facing impeachment by many members of the Russian Duma, called on the military to end the rebellion. Despite the turmoil, meetings were conducted at Roscosmos headquarters in the northern part of Moscow, just outside the Garden Ring.

On October 3, the Russian and American delegations gathered around a large, round table while gunfire echoed outside. Goldin recalled watching TV and thinking it was like being in a movie. “You could see people bashing in buses, throwing them over. You could hear machine guns firing.”3 That evening, armed pro-parliament demonstrators advanced on the Ostankino television center, not far from the Penta hotel where the NASA contingent was staying. As the demonstrators approached the TV complex, military units met them and a fierce battle ensued. Part of the TV center was significantly damaged, television stations went off the air, and sixty-two people were killed.

Goldin called Washington for guidance on whether the delegation should leave the city. Soon a call came back: “The President of the United States would like to show support for democracy in Russia. If it’s safe, please stay.” Goldin called the group together to take a vote. Every single person voted to stay.

By sunrise the next day the Russian army had encircled the parliament building, and a few hours later army tanks began to shell the Russian White House. Meanwhile, the NASA contingent was getting ready to head from the hotel to resume negotiations at Roscosmos headquarters. Abbey recalled seeing tanks firing into the White House on television and then, a few seconds later, hearing the blasts and seeing the smoke rising outside.

Even in the presence of this much instability and uncertainty about the future of their country, the Russians were still willing to talk about cooperation in space. Likewise, the effort was so important to the Americans that they were willing to risk life and limb to push the partnership forward. Space rose above the fray. As Goldin put it, “That day of revolution, we negotiated the Russian entry into the International Space Station.” There was great motivation on both sides to move things forward because, in reality, both sides needed each other.


The Shuttle–Mir program began in earnest on February 3, 1994, with the launch of Space Shuttle Mission STS-60. On the middeck of Space Shuttle Discovery, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was making his third trip to space. Krikalev would go on to fly three more space missions, including two ISS missions, and ended up spending more time in space than anyone in history—an astonishing 804 days.

A year and three days later, on February 6, 1995, during the STS-63 mission, Shuttle Commander Jim Wetherbee maneuvered Discovery to within 36 feet of Space Station Mir. On board Mir were Mir-17 commander Aleksandr Viktorenko and cosmonauts Yelena Kondakova and Valeri Polyakov. There was to be no docking on this mission, just a close approach and partial flight around the station. The mission was a dress rehearsal of sorts for the first docking to the station.

As Wetherbee approached Mir he radioed, “As we are bringing our spaceships closer together, we are bringing our nations closer together. The next time we approach, we will shake your hand and together we will lead our world into the next millennium.” Viktorenko responded, “We are one! We are human!”

For Mike Foale, who was on board Discovery, the realization of the importance of the mission actually came later:

We all thought this Mir thing was kind of a jaunt—it was just an add-on [to the mission], albeit exciting. But it was when MCC-Houston [Mission Control Center, Houston] sent up a crappy picture made from a TV picture downloaded from Mir to MCC-Moscow—a really bad black-and-white image of us on the shuttle, coming up to the Mir—that it suddenly dawned on us that we had done something really important. It was that view of us from the Russians’ point of view that brought out a key issue in collaboration, and that’s looking at the world through the other person’s eyes.

The first shuttle docking to Mir came in June 1995, during STS-71, when Shuttle Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson docked Space Shuttle Atlantis to the station. This was the first time that the U.S. space shuttle, which was designed to construct and dock to an American space station, had ever docked to anything. The mission delivered Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin to Mir and gave American astronaut Norm Thagard a ride home following his historic first U.S. mission on board Mir. He had launched to the space station nearly four months earlier aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.


The Shuttle–Mir program continued until 1998. In all, seven U.S. astronauts spent nearly one thousand days on the orbiting space station. At times the relationship was strained by various emergencies and crises. In 1997, for instance, a fire broke out on board, threatening the life of the crew, including American astronaut Jerry Linenger. Later that year, the unmanned Russian cargo ship Progress collided with the station. The collision breached Mir’s hull and sent the crew, including American astronaut Mike Foale, scrambling to cut off the damaged part of the station and isolate the subsequent depressurization as the space station’s air leaked out into the vacuum of space. Incredibly, despite the severity of the situation, the crew was able to isolate the leaking section of the station, but the aftermath of the collision left the orbiting complex tumbling and without power for many hours.

Such life-threatening events put a serious strain on the U.S.–Russian relationship, but they also helped forge a degree of trust. In the hours after the cargo ship collision, for instance, the crew had no choice but to collaborate to save their lives, and after the initial emergency was over, the United States and Russia improved their national collaboration out of necessity, to save the Shuttle–Mir program. The Russians became more willing to share technical data about their space operations, and the Americans came to prove they were in it for the long haul. The Americans demonstrated that they believed the partnership was valuable enough to continue flying American astronauts to the station, even though the continued U.S. presence on board Mir was a very controversial decision fraught with political bickering.

The decision of all parties to stay the course proved to be a critical component in building the trust that was to become the foundation of the International Space Station program. The lessons learned during the Shuttle–Mir program enabled the fifteen nations of the International Space Station partnership—which includes Canada, the nations of the European Space Agency, Japan, Russia, and the United States—to embark on the largest, most daring peacetime international collaboration in history.

The first component of the ISS was launched in 1998, and the station has been continuously inhabited since November 2000, surpassing the previous record of nearly ten years’ continuous human presence in low Earth orbit—held by Mir, of course.

However, the ISS program has also had its share of challenges to overcome to keep the partnership together, some of which we will detail in the next chapter. No challenge was more dire and critical, though, than the aftermath of the morning of February 1, 2003—the day Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry, killing the crew of Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon. In the wake of the disaster, the shuttle fleet was grounded for more than two years while new safety measures were incorporated into the design.

During this period, the Russians picked up the slack, transporting crew members to and from the ISS. But as the grounding of the shuttles dragged on, there was much concern among the ISS partners that the United States would be unable to fulfill its commitments to the construction of the space station. In June 2005, newly appointed NASA Administrator Mike Griffin faced this concern head-on at a meeting of ISS partners in Paris. Essentially, Griffin’s counterparts from the partner space agencies were saying, “If you don’t complete the ISS, we will never work with you again, because we will have all lost our jobs.” The international partners were very concerned, and they were very aware that the decision to finish the space station was seriously in doubt.

Griffin knew that the United States had to live up to its commitments to the station, which included launching the Japanese and European modules. Failure to do so would be disastrous to the international partnership, which he considered the most important part of the ISS effort. But doing so would not be easy. According to Griffin, “What the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] told me when I took over NASA was that I only had enough money for fifteen more shuttle flights, post-Columbia. … It was very clear to me that it was essential for us to meet our commitments and get those modules launched. But it was also clear that I wasn’t going to have enough shuttle flights to get everything done, and there was nothing I could do about that.” At the time there were nearly thirty shuttle flights on the books to complete the construction of the space station.

In the end, twenty-two shuttle flights were flown to complete the construction of the ISS. To accomplish these flights, Griffin needed to be creative, within the constraints of the NASA budget. “I took money from science and other places, and I got yelled at for that—but I did it.” And his creativity paid off. “Because I made the decision quickly, we stuck to it, and the actions that followed were obviously in support of the decision, it engendered a lot of trust on the part of our partners, for the United States and for NASA.” Until that decision was made, however, it was not clear that the United States was going to commit to completing the ISS.

Following completion of the ISS construction in the summer of 2011, the space shuttle program was retired. I had the honor of closing the hatch on that last shuttle flight and ringing the ship’s bell on board the space station as Space Shuttle Atlantis and the crew of STS-135 undocked and departed from the ISS for the last time. This was a very emotional experience for all of us. Closing that hatch signified the closing of a long chapter of the U.S. space program, a chapter filled with hard-won successes. But it also signified the fulfillment of a commitment and the opening of a new chapter in space exploration, beyond low Earth orbit.

This new era of cooperation is the true fulfillment of a goal articulated nearly fifty years before that final shuttle flight to the ISS. In September 1962, President Kennedy famously stated:

For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. … There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.4

The story of this international cooperation is largely a story of technical, political, personal, and other challenges, and of the trust earned among all the partners in the ISS program, which will be detailed in the next chapter. Out of those challenges, moreover, we can discern a number of principles that may be used to guide cooperation both in space and on Earth, which we’ll get into in chapter 3. These principles, and the motivation to adhere to them, are inspired by the orbital perspective.

Back to Top ↑


“Life on Earth is experienced two-dimensionally—with all of the distortion that that implies. Such a blinkered view is impossible from orbit, where you take in whole sweeps of the borderless globe in a glance. Garan's book, The Orbital Perspective movingly explains the impact of such a perspective shift—one that by no means occurs for every astronaut. In Garan's case—and perhaps Garan's alone—the message is how the rest of us can put his lessons to use. The Orbital Perspective could wind up being the most important tale ever told from space.”
—Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine

"His thesis that 'Earth is a small town with many neighborhoods in a very big universe' rings powerfully true, and his lessons are particularly apt for those working in the nonprofit sector."
—Publishers Weekly

“The Orbital Perspective is an inspirational knockout. After reading this book you will refuse to accept the status quo on our planet.”
—Wladimir Klitschko, PhD, Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World and founder of Klitschko Management Group

“This is more than just a book; it is a call to action and a catalyst for a necessary movement. We need to look beyond what we think is possible and reimagine a world in which no one is limited by his or her circumstances. This is a defining book for a defining time in human history.”
—Daniel Epstein, founder and CEO, Unreasonable Group

“Written from Ron Garan's unique perspective as an astronaut, The Orbital Perspective reminds us of our common humanity and that the pressing challenges we face, we must face and resolve together through tolerance, dialogue, and cooperation.”
—Kofi A. Annan, Nobel Peace Laureate and Chair, Kofi Annan Foundation

“It is said that to understand a problem properly you need to get outside of it. Ron Garan has certainly done that. Ron's focus is on finding new connections and collaborations that cross borders of all sorts that might just allow us to transform the world for the better before we destroy this big blue ball we call home.”
—Peter Gabriel, musician and a founder of WOMAD, Witness, and The Elders

“Ron Garan's breakthrough book is one of a kind. Never before has a firsthand account of lessons learned in space been applied to firsthand humanitarian development work on Earth. Ron masterfully synthesizes the big-picture view of our world with the ground-level details necessary to overcome the barriers to improving life for all people”
—Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia

“Astronaut Ron Garan's fabulous book will transport you from the magnificent sense of possibility in outer space to the perspective of a worm on Earth's rich soil and will reassert our fundamental connection to one another in ways that challenge and inspire. We all need more of an orbital perspective to remind us that, in the end, we only have each other.”
—Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO, Acumen, and author of The Blue Sweater

“A wonderful call to shift our point of view from local to global, from myopic to orbital. This consciousness-altering, ego-dissolving, mind-reconfiguring experience renders our common purpose clear: we are the frontal lobes of this Pale Blue Dot and we need to leverage our collective genius to overcome our challenges and unleash our potential. Bravo!”
—Jason Silva, filmmaker, media artist, and host of National Geographic Channel's Brain Games

“Put a humanitarian into a spacesuit and keep sending him into space and books like this are bound to be written. You see, global problems can have a personal solution.”
—Keith Cowing, Executive Director, Space College Foundation 

Back to Top ↑