An interview with World View Chief Pilot Ron Garan

April 7, 2016
Author
Sarah Cruddas
April 7, 2016
Author
Sarah Cruddas

This year former NASA astronaut Ron Garan was appointed Chief Pilot of World View Enterprises. The veteran of both Space Shuttle and Soyuz missions spent more than 177 days in space before deciding to leave the agency in September 2013, to focus on sharing the unique perspective of our planet that space travel brings. In February this year Garan explained in his blog that this was something he believed could have a “profound, positive effect on the trajectory of our global society and our world.”

At World View, he joins a team made up of giants from the space industry. Founded in 2011 by Jayne Poynter, Taber MacCallum, and Alan Stern, World View's team also includes former NASA Astronaut Mark Kelly, as Director of Flight Crew Operations.

“World View was built on a vision to broaden human perspective by taking Voyagers on the journey of a lifetime,” explains Stern. “Be they private individuals or those travelling for scientific pursuit”. Using a helium balloon which inflates to the size of a football stadium, once ready, World View will be able to carry up to 6 passengers in a capsule to a height of around 100,000 feet, above 99% of our atmosphere. From this altitude they will be able to see the curvature of the Earth and our sun as a star against a black sky, before detaching from the balloon and returning to Earth under a steerable parachute.

But while the media focus is on passenger flights, the use of near-space balloons also has the potential to disrupt the way we access data from space. As well as flying payloads, experiment packages, deploying satellites and reducing the cost of accessing near-space, World View have the capability to circumnavigate the globe, or hover over a specific location on Earth for months at a time. “We’ve found that our technology will not only transform access to space for individuals, but that it can also serve as a platform for unprecedented commercial application” says Stern. This presents a game changing opportunity, capable of generating a new stratospheric economy, with applications in areas such as communications, first response, research, and weather forecasting.

It is this which excites Garan just as much as being able to take passengers to the edge of space. He spoke to Sarah Cruddas about his new role and why technology developed by World View could have such as huge impact for life back on Earth.

SC: What does it mean to you to be Chief Pilot for World View?

RG: It means that I can be a part of an amazing team that will do something that has never been done before, fly a capsule back from the edge of space under a steerable parachute and land softly and safely at a predetermined point back on Earth. In doing so we will create an industry that presently does not exist and open up a new perspective of our planet to many people.

SC: Where does your passion for space exploration and sharing that experience come from?

RG: I believe that space exploration is one of the greatest investments we can make for our future. My passion for space exploration comes from that awareness and from the belief that the big picture/long-term perspective of our planet, that is obvious from space, has profound implications for how we solve the biggest problems facing our world. My passion for sharing that perspective is rooted in the transformative power of zooming out to the point where everyone is in the picture and can be part of the problem solving process.

SC: You were an astronaut with NASA, but you have also had a military career, can you tell us more about your background and how it led to where you are today?

RG: An interesting aspect of my background is that I spent the first 15 years of my adult life training to fight the Russians as a Cold War Fighter Pilot. Later, I became a Test Pilot and was selected to be an astronaut from the cadre of USAF Test Pilots. 11 years after being selected as an astronaut I found myself at a previous top-secret Soviet military installation at the foot of a rocket that would take me and my two Russian military officer crewmates to space. I was launching as a fully integrated member of a Russian spacecraft crew from the same launchpad that Yuri Gagarin launched from, on the 50th anniversary of his spaceflight. The fact that there was a Russian and American flag on that rocket really drove home the power of international cooperation and the power of being able to set aside our differences and work together toward common goals that benefit all of humanity.

SC: Who are you heroes?

RG: Growing up the early astronauts were my heroes (and still are), but I now add to that list anyone who is striving to make a difference in this world, anyone who is working toward leaving this place a little bit better than they found it. One group in particular that I admire is teachers, because they have the biggest opportunity to affect our future by nurturing the next generation.

SC: World Views’ passenger flights are getting most of the media attention, but there is also huge potential to improve the way we access data from space, can you explain what else you are hoping to achieve?

RG: In addition to flying people to the edge of space, I am also really excited about the payloads and experiment packages we will fly. We are able to fly communications and research platforms and many other payloads large and small. For instance, we can contribute to the body of knowledge of our planet’s upper atmosphere and help better model weather patterns and climate change. We can help provide communications and internet service to remote and impoverished areas of the world and we can reestablish communications between first responders and those affected in response to (or in anticipation of) natural disasters. The list goes on and on. The rapid deployment capability and the flexibility of flight profiles makes this an exciting platform.

SC: Why are private companies such as World View significant for the exploration of space?

RG: Private companies are enabling enterprise in an environment that at least in the case of human exploration has involved primarily large government organizations. Private ventures will enable those same government organizations to focus on their main charter - exploration. The more that operations in the upper atmosphere and in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) can be turned over to private enterprises, the more that government organizations like NASA can focus on exploring beyond LEO and pushing out into the Solar System. What’s unique about World View is it will revolutionize the satellite industry. Many of the activities that are currently accomplished by satellites can be done on World View balloon platforms better, faster and at a fraction of the cost.

SC: Why are private investors significant to ventures such as World View?

RG: In order to fully realize the vision of creating a new commercial space market we need to join forces with those who share that vision. Collaboration with private investors is a critical piece of the puzzle that will help make business operations more effective, efficient and financially sustainable. Private investment enables economies of scale and long-term planning which are both critical for projects of this scale.

SC: How do you feel about your first World View flight?

RG: I am very much looking forward to my first World View flight both because I miss seeing our beautiful planet from that perspective and also because that will be a huge milestone leading us to opening up that perspective to many.

SC: You have seen a lot of changes in your career, how do you envision space exploration changing in the next 20/25 years?

RG: My hope and my expectation is that in the next 20/25 years, space travel will become as commonplace as air travel and we will look back at our burgeoning commercial spaceflight industry with the same fondness that we look back upon the early aviation pioneers.

SC: What kind of legacy would you like to leave?

RG: I try to focus on impact versus legacy. I have found that focusing on leaving a legacy can be somewhat limiting. Legacy is concerned with who gets credit for the good done while impact is only concerned with the good. I have found that letting go of the prerequisite of establishing credit is an extremely powerful catalyst to effect real and positively disruptive change in the world.

Key Facts:

Balloon altitude: Maximum altitude around 100,000 feet

Cabin Environment: Similar to an aeroplane, passenger able to wear standard clothes.

Passengers: Up to 6 plus a pilot, flights could begin as soon as 2017 and no training is required.

Payloads: Currently flying various research, science, and technology payloads.

Key people: 

Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Alan Stern, Mark Kelly, Sebastian Padilla, Ron Garan.

Sarah Cruddas is a Space Journalist, Broadcaster and Author with a background in astrophysics. She is the voice of space on British TV for channels including Sky News, Channel 5 and ITV. Specializing in space exploration she has reported on the industry from across the world.@sarahcruddaswww.sarahcruddas.com

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