Back Where It All Began: An Interview With Astronaut Ron Garan

"The thing I want people to take away is the example of international collaboration that created and built the space station. It's just awe-inspiring."
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Two weeks ago, when I was planning for my spring break, I listed a lot of places in the New York area that I hoped I'd be able to visit, hopefully with my family. When I got home, however, there was one little problem... nobody else was on spring break. My brothers were still in school, and my parents still had to go to work, so visiting museums and monuments every day together wasn't something we could do.

My parents told me I could still visit the sites I wanted to in New York City... as long as I was willing to do them all in one day... and as long as I woke up at 4 a.m. to ride into the city with my father... and as long as I could pay for my own cab fare between the sites... and as long as I was willing to do all of this on Tuesday, March 13th, the day we were already scheduled to hear astronaut Ron Garan speak at the Cradle of Aviation museum in Garden City.

Naturally, I agreed.

I had a really busy, exciting, adventure-packed day that one blog post couldn't possibly do justice to, so I've decided to begin at the end, since the interview I did with Colonel Garan after his presentation is self-contained.

The Cradle had been where the most exciting two years of my life had begun, at the Apollo 13 40th anniversary celebration in April of 2010. I'd found out about the ISS link-up event at the museum that June, where I'd found out about the World Science Festival, where I'd found out how to write to Charles Bolden, which led to my invitation to the STS-133 launch, which led to my internship...

But I hadn't gotten the chance to visit the Cradle since that link-up in June of 2010, so I was eager to go back. The galleries were closed when I arrived at 6:30 for the event, but the Jet Annex was open, and the lobby itself contained many exhibits. Seeing reminders of the aerospace contributions of my home area made me proud to be from Long Island.

The local, friendly atmosphere permeated the whole evening. Mr. Garan told us that, while Houston was his current place of residence, this trip back to New York for the first time since his return to Earth had felt like coming home. (And, despite having grown up in Yonkers, he said that he considered himself a Long Islander because of the childhood summers he'd spent in Long Beach.)

The whole presentation had the air of a kind, funny, neighbor sharing his vacation slides and videos. While I'd already seen many of Mr. Garan's photos and videos from his time onboard the International Space Station online, his commentary was enlightening. I learned that he and his Expedition 27 crewmates had enjoyed an ice-cream party during the STS-134 mission, courtesy of some real, non-dehydrated, ice-cream that had been brought up in a scientific freezer aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The freezer was serious scientific equipment for the station, but since it was going to be carried up empty, NASA had decided to fill it with a treat for the astronauts! (And if you haven't already seen the video "Coming Back Down to Our Fragile Oasis," I strongly recommend dropping everything and going to watch it.)

After the lecture, the crowd was warm and friendly as Mr. Garan answered requests for autographs. I chatted with the other space fans. One man had a large poster of John Young and Gus Grissom suiting up on which he'd already collected a myriad astronaut signatures! I noticed a pilot from the 106th Rescue Wing, wearing his own green flightsuit, and drawing the attention of a smaller crowd of little boys eager to meet a real jet pilot, waiting in line to meet Mr. Garan.

"You're just as awed as we are, aren't you?" I asked.

"Oh, yes." He replied. Astronauts are special like that.

Finally, I headed into the museum gallery with Mr. Garan and some of his friends, and got ready for our interview. It had been Fred Haise who'd inspired me to start asking astronauts for hugs at the reception in the lobby of the Cradle. And, in the early flight gallery, I explained the tradition to Mr. Garan, who happily became the 18th on my hug list. I started up my tape recorder, and we started to talk, one New Yorker to another.

Me: OK, so first of all, I want to say that I've never interviewed an astronaut before so if at any point here, I should, you know, be blinded by your magnificence or melt into a puddle in the face of your awesomeness, please forgive me.

Ron Garan (RG): (smiles) I don't think we need to worry about that happening.

Me: (nods) OK, but just in case. So, I know who you are, I was here [at the lecture], but for everybody reading online, could you please state your name and what you do?

RG: My name is Ron Garan, I'm a NASA astronaut, and I just recently got back from six months onboard the International Space Station.

Me: I know that you're from New York -- you and Mike Massimino are some of the people who make me the proudest to be from New York -- so have you been to the Cradle before?

RG: I have. A few years ago I gave a presentation here after my STS-124 mission.

Me: So you said [in your presentation] that STS-1 inspired you to want to be an astronaut when you were in college. Could you tell me more about that, like where you were when you saw it, what you thought?

RG: Well, like I said in the presentation, I wanted to be an astronaut way before that, back in 1969, when I was a little kid, watching the moon landing. But then, when I was in high school, I kind of lost sight of that dream, because I didn't even realize we had a space program. It was after Skylab, it was before the shuttle, and so I went off to college really not knowing what I was doing and kind of directionless, if you will.

And then, when I was a sophomore, STS-1 happened, the first Space Shuttle mission, and the very next day, I went and I started enrolling in math and science courses. I talked to my advisors about what I needed to do and started pursuing a career in engineering. I eventually became a pilot, an Air Force pilot, and then, 15 years later, an astronaut. All because I was inspired by that first mission, and I realized that yes, we do have a space program.

Me: How did you see it? Did you have a TV in your room or what?

RG: Oh, well, the first moon landing was on the fiftieth anniversary of my great-grandparents' wedding. So my whole, entire family, extended family, was gathered around a black-and-white set at this place where the party was.

And then, yeah, I think for the space shuttle it was a TV in my dorm room.

Me: So, I'm in college right now at the moment, I'm a freshman. You were on the space station for several months with a lot of other people -- do you have any advice on getting along with roommates?

RG: Well, you know, on the space station, we're up there for six months, basically locked in a can. We're all working towards the same goal, and so, even though you're not always going to get along with everybody, as long as you're working towards the same thing, you can overlook certain things a lot better. So I guess the secret would be to look for things that you have in common, look for things that you can work on together.

Me: OK. (nods) Which part of your training did you think was the hardest?

RG: The separation from my family. Being away fifty percent of the time in different countries and all the traveling. I think that was probably the hardest.

Me: What was your favorite part of your time on the space station?

RG: Looking at the Earth. Just sitting there in awe of the amazing, beautiful planet that we've been given.

Me: What was the most unexpected part?

RG: Hmmm... I don't know. It was pretty much all expected. I think one of my pleasant surprises was how well the new cameras that we have onboard the space station capture the Earth. That was a really good, pleasant surprise.

Me: What are three things that you think everyone should know about the space station?

RG: The three...

The number one thing everybody should know about the space station is that the space station is making the world a better place. The science that we're doing onboard the space station will improve life on Earth. Medicine, environmental science fields, materials science, the list goes on and on. We have direct, tangible benefits for the research that's being done onboard the space station.

The second thing I want people to take away is the example of international collaboration that created and built the space station. It's just awe-inspiring. And if we can do that, if fifteen nations who have not always been the best of friends can join together and build this incredible orbiting space station, imagine what we can do to solve the problems facing our planet if we work together.

And the third one is that the space station is only a stepping stone for us to explore beyond Low Earth Orbit and on into the solar system.

Me: So, I have your crew poster hanging in my dorm room -- whose idea was it to pose like superheroes?

RG: Not mine.

Me: Not yours.

RG: I don't have any idea whose idea that was.

Me: Did you like it?

RG: Oh... it was a little embarrassing, to tell you the truth, but I know that it's fun for people.

Me: If you did have a superpower, what do you think it would be?

RG: (laughs) I have no idea. (laughs) Uh... I don't know, I don't know... Flying, because I have flown through the space station!

Me: Yes. (laughs) But, a lack of superpowers hasn't stopped you from trying to do your part to save the world. Could you tell me about the Fragile Oasis project and what that is?

RG: Yes, the goal of Fragile Oasis... (thinks) There's a number of goals, one is to use the orbital perspective, use this view that we have of the planet, to inspire people to go out and make the world a better place. Obviously, we also want to provide a means to tell everybody the success story of the space station, how it's going to benefit them.

But as far as improving the world, we didn't just want to say, "Look at how the Earth looks from space, this is beautiful, go improve the world." We try to provide a collaborative platform, a way for people to work together towards common goals, and we actually spun off another project, called Unity Node. The sole purpose of Unity Node is to be able to provide a collaborative platform for humanitarian organizations around the world to work together. The real story there is not the platform itself, it's the collaboration that we're bringing together, the coalition of organizations like the UN and USAID and NASA and all these other organizations that are coming together to build this platform.

Me: You took a whole bunch of pictures in space.

RG: Uh huh.

Me: I think that they're all really incredible. What's your favorite picture that you took while you were in space?

RG: I don't think that I could pick a favorite picture. I think I have some favorites. Obviously, the meteor that I took was a really special gift that I got by accident, I was really lucky there. The moon over Afghanistan that you saw tonight, I really liked that. Some of the other pictures of the moon... There's some pictures of the East Coast of the U.S. that I really liked, some of Israel and Egypt, there's a whole bunch.

But, you know, it's not just because of the beauty of these pictures that I like them. Some of the pictures that I really enjoy are pictures of areas of the Earth where amazing people are making a difference and doing humanitarian projects. That's always another part of the planet that I like taking pictures of.

Me: My friend had that online as "Best. Meteor. Ever."

RG: (laughs)

Me: How did it feel to be launching from the same pad as Yuri Gagarin, fifty years later?

RG: That was absolutely incredible. I was born in the same year that he became the first human in space. There's a legend in my family that we're actually related to him -- we're not, but my great-grandparents did emigrate here from Russia. It was amazing, just absolutely amazing.

Me: So, for Yuri's Night, I'm with the group that's planning a party in Boston, and I'm supposed to make the playlist. Are there any songs that remind you of being in space?

RG: Um... I'll have to get back to you on that. There probably are, but I'll get back to you on that.

Me: OK. What excites you the most about the future of space exploration?

RG: I think what excites me the most is that people are starting to realize the benefit of space exploration. The more we can get people to realize how much it benefits them, the more they're going to support it.

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