SXSW opens your eyes to the interconnectivity not only of different art forms and types of technology but of humanity. One of the most awe-inspiring panels of SXSW Interactive was the one presented by retired astronaut Ron Garan and award-winning director, speaker and photographer Guy Reid.
Ron is a retired astronaut and highly decorated fighter pilot and test pilot as well as an explorer, entrepreneur, humanitarian, speaker and author... so basically, the most interesting man in the world.
As a NASA astronaut, Ron has traveled 71,075,867 miles in 2,842 orbits of our planet. Flying on both the US Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, Ron has spent 178 days in space and 27 hours and 3 minutes of extravehicular activity during four spacewalks.
His time in space and on this planet, both on dry land and undersea (oh yeah... he's also an aquanaut!) inspired Ron to found Fragile Oasis. After experiencing firsthand the collaboration of 15 countries with the building of the International Space Station, Ron is now working to spread what he calls the "Orbital Perspective," which is also the title of his breakthrough book. The "Orbital Perspective," which is shared by all astronauts, is the belief that the more we can learn to collaborate as a species, the more problems we can solve and the more beautiful we can make this Earth for all.
"United as passengers riding through the Universe together on the spaceship we call Earth... The focus of Fragile Oasis is not on the problems of the world, but on how the problems of the world are being solved by amazing people."
There were 900 panels to choose from over 10 days at SXSW, but you could tell that the 50 people packed into the tiny meeting room of the Westin hotel in downtown Austin didn't want to be anywhere else. Each pair of eyes widened and tears even rolled down some cheeks as Ron spoke about what he saw, felt and learned from his time in space...
"On that first day in space, the most spectacular moment was when I had the opportunity to look out of the window for the first time. When all my tasks were done and I was able to unstrap and really take a good look at our planet. It was just absolutely breathtaking. And the first thing that really hit me was just how thin our atmosphere was and in that moment I was just struck with this sobering reality that that paper thin layer is the only thing protecting every living thing on the planet, the only thing keeping us all alive. When in contrast to that fragility, you can’t help but fall in love with the beauty of our planet - the constant change of colors and light and motion…
...it was really beautiful as we approached the dark side of the orbit and you could see the thunderstorms casting these long shadows on the horizon and watch the clouds turn to pink and then to red and then finally black. And as we cross onto the dark side of the orbit we see the Earth come alive, all the lights of the cities and the towns and all the evidence of human activity and all of a sudden comes to life. And it really gives you this sense that we live on this living, breathing organism...
…It was a moving visual experience but it was much much more than just a visual experience. What I felt when I saw the Earth for the first time was an immense gratitude. An immense gratitude for the opportunity to have that experience - to see the Earth from that vantage point - an immense gratitude for the Earth that we’ve all been given. And in a way that I really can’t explain or really don’t understand, being physically detached from the Earth made me feel deeply interconnected with everybody on it."
So the question is... how can we bring that emotion of interconnectivity back down to Earth? One of the tenants of Ron's book, The Orbital Perspective, is that you don't need to be in orbit to have the orbital perspective. We are all in space right now; our spacecraft just happens to be this planet we call Earth. In order for astronauts to survive in space, they have to maintain ‘a closed life support system,’ which means they cannot use resources faster than they can resupply them. And it’s the same here on Earth. But right now, we are using the Earth’s resources faster than they are being replenished.
Under his Planetary Collective, director Guy Reid changed the way people think about our relationship with the planet Earth through his groundbreaking documentaries Overview(2012) and Planetary (2015). Now, Guy is helping to share Ron's "Orbital Perspective." The two are collaborating on a new documentary called Orbit, which is expected to release in 2017.
"Astronauts look out the window and they see the biosphere, they don’t see the economy. And yet, our primary reference point and our primary system is our economy. And it’s kind of obvious that you have biosphere, humanity and then the economy and our whole system is based on precisely the opposite, where the biosphere is a subsidiary or sub-system of the economy."
And as Ron and Guy both noted, this is not just a theory, this is the reality of the world we live in.
Ron is still processing his experiences in space. While he doesn't think it changed the way he thinks about the responsibility we carry as humans to leave the Earth better than we found it, it did change his definition of the word "home."
"When it was time to come back from the space station on my second mission, which was a sixth month mission on board, we undocked from the space station, we did a couple of laps around the planet and as we passed the South tip of South America, we fishtailed our spacecraft around to point the engines backwards and we fired the engines just enough to enter the upper atmosphere, which slowed us down, we had this firey ride through the atmosphere, myself and my two Russian crew mates, the parachutes open... and we hit the ground really really hard. We bounced, we rolled over and we end up on the side, with me at the bottom of this thing and my window now was pointed at the ground... out of the window, I saw a rock, a flower and a blade of grass. I remember thinking to myself distinctly that 'I'm home.' And what was really interesting about that thought what hit me right away was I was home, but I was in Kazakhstan."
Our definition of "home" has profound implications not only on how we treat each other, as Ron pointed out, but how we deal with the problems that face our species and our planet, be it the refugee crisis or global warming. To Ron, the International Space Station represents the greatest human achievement in history. It took 15 different nations - some on opposite sides of wars and opposite sides of the space race - uniting and working together to build the most complicated structure to ever exist, and he couldn't help but think...
"If we can set aside our differences to do this, imagine what we can do with that same level of cooperation here on the earth's surface."