NASA astronaut Ron Garan has an amazing story to tell. The Yonkers, New York, native returned on September 16 from a six-month-long stay aboard the International Space Station, where his outer space journey culminated in a rather tense landing. Garan, who traveled to space on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, returned in the Soyuz's space capsule—which lost communication with ground control while returning to Earth. Before safely landing in Kazakhstan, authorities restored radio by flying out a special fixed-wing aircraft that circled the landing site.
While in space, Garan worked on a number of scientific experiments... and used Twitter prolifically. Fast Company spoke with Garan today about space travel, high-tech developments, using social media from space and his charitable efforts with Fragile Oasis.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about the landing?
It was very fun. I had some briefings before the day of reentry from astronauts who had done it before. One that in particular stood out to me compared it to what it would be like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. However, [the astronaut] added that the barrel would be on fire. I think the dynamic of reentering the atmosphere in a small capsule, the dynamic of the different chutes opening was about what I expected and it was a wild ride. It was neat to watch the atmosphere around the capsule turn pink. We turned backwards, fired our engines over South America, reentered the atmosphere over Africa and we were just.. the extent of speed you have when you're coming back to Earth is amazing. The continents, the countries whizzing by and the flames start, sparks fly right outside your window and everything is just inches from your face on the outside of the glass. It's hot out there!
The landing itself was very interesting [Laughs]. We had a hard landing but it was definitely good to be back.
I looked at your Twitter feed earlier, which was very active. How did you tweet from space?
We actually have a remote desktop here at the Johnson Space Center. When we had the proper communications coverage, we could log onto our laptops—actually I had a laptop in our crew quarters—and it would connect to our remote desktop and it was like I was sitting at a desk on earth.
If you were able to use the Internet from space, did that mean you had access to Facebook, Skype and other services?
Well, we don't have full capability yet. There are things we're working on that we would like to make faster. One of the limitations we had is that any streaming video or audio wouldn't work very well. But we used email obviously, Facebook, Twitter and other social media things. The only limitation we had was streaming audio or video.
What kind of new technology have astronauts on the International Space Station been using?
There's quite a bit. Different robotics that are on board—both inside and outside. There has been quite a lot of work in that area. A lot of the scientific experiments we work on use cutting-edge facilities and new technologies. We aren't just using this technology to discover things. A lot of the work we do on-board involves technology demonstrations; [outer space] is a very unique environment that we really can't duplicate on Earth.
Many of our readers are entrepreneurs who work at high-tech firms. What technologies do you think startups should focus on developing for both astronauts and space programs in general?
That's a very good question. From the International Space Station's point of view, anything that could make our research more efficient, effective, and compelling is important. We have a tremendous opportunity for research there, with several world-class laboratories aboard. We have the European Space Agency laboratory, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency laboratory, the American laboratory, and Russian facilities throughout the Space Station.
Anything that would helps us to use these facilities to make the breakthroughs and discoveries that we will make...that's an area that I think is very promising.
In the future, what do you see the divide in duties between NASA, private space firms, and foreign space agencies being?
I think you're already seeing it. Our divide is that we're turning over basic operations and basic work to private enterprises; this frees up government agencies to do what we're trying to do in the first place—explore.
This means going further and further out into outer space and pushing the envelope. We really need to start not just exploring space, but utilizing space. When you go to asteroids, there are a lot of resources. There are a lot of resources on the moon that could benefit humankind if we took advantage of it.
Getting the chance to travel into space is an incredible gift. Do you miss it when you are on Earth? Do you ever miss space?
Of course. I understand how fortunate I am to have had that experience. This is why I try with technology and social media and whatnot to share it as much as I can. I know many other astronauts feel the same way. There are a lot of things I miss.
I miss looking down at the Earth and seeing that little line that defines day and night. I miss picking out the different activities on the planet; people on each side of the line that's moving across the globe... Seeing lightning storms from outer space... The list goes on and on about how fascinating it is to look up high from space.
Can you tell me a little about your charitable work with Fragile Oasis?
I feel a responsibility—as many of us in this profession do—to share the perspective and view we have. We're faced with many challenges on this planet. There's a stark contradiction between the beauty of this planet and daily life for many of its inhabitants.
It really punches you in the gut when you're looking at our planet from that vantage point. You can't help but think that, if we can share this perspective, we can maybe overcome the challenges that we face. That's one of the big goals.
What's next for you professionally?
Whatever NASA needs me to do. I believe in what we're doing in the space program, I believe it's critically important to our future. I'm looking forward to helping out however I can.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.