Why Give a Damn:

Our Astronaut/Fighter Pilot Scribe tells the story of crashing & burning (literally!) and how this changed the way he looks at risk & innovation forever.

The author of this post, Ron Garan, is a Fighter Pilot, Test Pilot, Social Entrepreneur, Astronaut, and Aquanaut. And most unreasonably, through his social enterprise incubator the Manna Energy Foundation he has helped to bring drinking water to millions in Africa in a completely financially self sustaining way via his company, Manna Energy Ltd.

I hear the word innovation constantly. The word is used in advertising, business plans, and countless seminars and conferences. Although there are cases of misuse and overuse for sure, I believe the reason why we hear the word innovation so much is because what is needed at this moment in history is, in fact, innovation. That is, innovation defined as coming up with better solutions – better solutions that come from doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

Dialog is great but we need action–positive, disruptive action

Today Technology is advancing at an exponential rate. If we look back at the unprecedented, incredible, increase in the capability of technology over the past 5 years and project that technological advancement to the next 5 years the advancements are mind boggling. As mind boggling as they are, they will prove to be a vast underestimate. We tend to think linearly (throughout all of history – up to a couple of decades ago this worked well) We can no longer project technological advancements out linearly because the rate of acceleration of technological advancement is itself accelerating rapidly.

In developing a strategy to use our rapidly advancing technology to produce innovation that will address our most critical challenges we need to step outside of our comfort zones, step outside of the way we’ve always done things and take some risk.

Ron in an F-16, Germany 1988

Ron in an F-16, Germany 1988

I want to share with you a story that has shaped every decision I have made concerning risk over the last 25+ years. This is a picture of me in my first operational F-16 squadron in Germany. I was a very stereo-typical young fighter pilot. A little cocky and I tended to think of myself as seemingly indestructible. A few months after this picture was taken on Sept 13th 1988, I was taking off in an F-16 at Shaw AFB in SC. Up until this point I had 1000’s of takeoffs and landings and nothing had ever gone wrong …until that day.

On this day as I was rolling down the runway in my single seat, single engine F-16, as I got a few feet in the air and raised the landing gear, I heard a pop followed by a loud explosion that knocked my feet off the rudder pedals and head back into my seat. As a single engine pilot we are trained to be acutely aware of our engine parameters. The engine appeared to still be running. At this point, I attempted to make a climbing turn with the goal of hopefully getting to a point where, if the engine failed, I could dead stick the jet in for a landing. As soon as I started the turn I realized that was not going to be an option. The jet no longer had any usable thrust and this close to the ground my only option was to eject. My concern shifted from trying to save the jet to trying to minimize the aftermath of a jet that was about to crash. Fighter aircraft have a button called the Emergency Stores Jettison that if pushed, clears everything off the wings. That day I was carrying fuel tanks carrying about 5,000 lbs of fuel under the wings as well as some other heavy inert stores. I thought for a second to buy some time by jettison some weight but elected not to since in front of me was rush hour traffic on a highway off the end of the runway. At this point I was heading straight for a trailer park. I turned the aircraft a little to the left to an area that was more sparsely populated. I then saw wide open woods further to the left and attempted to steer the aircraft there. As soon as I tried to turn the jet further to the left it went out of control and started to slice back to the right.

RonCrash2At that point it was very apparent to me that there was no reason for me to stay with the ship and I reached down and pulled the ejection handle. The realization that there was nothing more I could do probably saved my life because I ejected about 4 seconds prior to impact and probably less than a second from being out of the ejection envelope. This whole story took considerably longer for you to read than it actually happened. This whole story probably occurred in a timeframe of less than 20 seconds

I obviously survived the ejection and actually had no injuries at all. You would think that a situation like that would have some kind of effect on me, it would somehow change my outlook on flying, life and risk. For some reason, unknown to me, it did not. What would happen the next day would be the life changing wakeup call that I probably just hit the snooze button on.

Ron in the cockpit of NASA T-38 Supersonic Jet Trainer

Ron in the cockpit of NASA T-38 Supersonic Jet Trainer

The next day, in the spirit of getting back on the horse, I was leading a formation of 4 F-16s on a training mission. Taking off first, when I was airborne I retarded the throttle out of after burner and heard a pop. I remember thinking to myself, “I bet it’s always done that and I’m only now noticing it because I’m being hypersensitive and aware” The next thing I heard was the low speed warning alarm come on indicating I had another engine malfunction. This time I was a little higher and faster and there was no rush hour traffic underneath me, just wide open fields, I pushed the emergency stores jettison button and unbeknownst to me had another malfunction and only the stores on one wing were jettisoned leaving my aircraft in an asymmetric condition that was not certified for flight. I was able to land my aircraft in the opposite direction on the same runway I took off from just as the last guy in my formation was getting airborne.

What got my attention was after 1000’s of uneventful takeoffs, I had 2 that almost killed me back to back. I wouldn’t say I was a dare devil but after that second incident, in as many days, I definitely changed. After that my eyes were opened and I saw risk in a new light. I saw risk as the price to pay for a benefit, I saw an emerging risk/benefit tradeoff.

After that my eyes were opened and I saw risk in a new light

This new outlook probably saved my life and carried me through many dangerous periods in my life; from flying in combat during the 1st Gulf war, to being an instructor at the AF’s Top Gun School (Fighter Weapons School) where over the course of my 3 years there I attended 5 memorial services for colleagues and friends of mine, to flying as an AF test pilot, to 2 space missions and 4 space walks.

In each of those environments, no mater what the situation was, the first thing I did was access where the safe exit to the situation was, unlike the young fighter pilot of my youth I didn’t blindly charge into a situation without first answering the question; “Where’s the way out if everything goes south?” But before I ever got myself into a situation where I could possibly need an exit strategy I first asked myself, was stepping into that situation worth it? Was the potential benefit worth the risk? The answer to that question sometimes was that the potential benefit is so great and the cost of not taking action so high that I was willing to enter a situation knowing I had no way out if things went south. These situations were very rare. I had a couple of these situations in combat where not taking action and putting myself at risk would threaten the lives of troops on the ground and certainly during space missions there were times where all I had to go on was a belief that what we were doing was having tremendous benefit for the world.

Ron about to board Space Shuttle Discovery

Ron about to board Space Shuttle Discovery

In order for an individual, organization or corporation to progress, grow and succeed some risk must be taken. The safest possible space program is one that never launches anything to space – but what good is that?

What NASA does better than probably any other organization in the world is to look at a situation and then spend a great deal of time and effort figuring out before hand every possible thing that can go wrong and develop plans that can be enacted in a very short amount of time to overcome those situations.

But the trick in this type of risk mitigation strategy is knowing when and when not to apply this rigorous approach. There is a tendency at NASA to apply this rigorous risk mitigation strategy across the board. This can lead to lack of flexibility, nimbleness and lost opportunities when we can’t react fast enough to emerging opportunities.

You have to have mechanisms in place to capture great ideas and emerging lower risk opportunities and streamline a path to action.

Lets say that someone has a great idea about how to improve global health programs, sustainability, or positive social impact. It must first be noted that ideas are highly overrated.

Ron photographed in the ISS Cupola over coastal Australia during the 6-month, Expedition 27/28 Mission

Ron photographed in the ISS Cupola over coastal Australia during the 6-month, Expedition 27/28 Mission

Ideas Are Highly Overrated

What I mean by ideas are overrated is: Every great accomplishment starts with an idea – however, an idea without action is empty.
After carefully calculating the risk and weighing all aspects of the risk-benefit equation, and evaluating the underlying motivation for a course of action, in order to reap the desired benefits, a decision must be made to not only commit to action but also there has to be a willingness to step outside of your comfort zone.

Any worthwhile endeavor requires hard work and dedication, but it also requires stepping out of our comfort zone, it requires stepping out of the way we’ve always done things to look at the situation from different angles and to realize that any one of us or any one organization will not have all the pieces of the puzzle.

Just Do It

However, it is precisely those people and organizations that truly commit to making a positive change and stepping outside of their comfort zones and it’s precisely at those moments when we have the courage to embrace new and innovative ideas, approaches, and partnerships and collaborate across different disciplines, industries, cultures, boundaries and borders, those are the ones that affect real change in the world – Disruptive Change.

Ron on a spacewalk during the STS-124 mission

Ron on a spacewalk during the STS-124 mission

So please take this as a Call to action.

Dialog is great but we need action – positive, disruptive action – action that leads to exponential good, to exponential progress toward solutions to the challenges we face. We need to stop thinking linearly and embrace exponential change – change that comes from being open to innovative partnerships, and solutions. This is true innovation.

About the author

Ron Garan

Ron Garan

A fighter pilot, social entrepreneur, astronaut, and aquanaut, Ron Garan has done it all. He is now the Chief Pilot at World View Enterprises, co-founder and director of Manna Energy, and the author of Orbital Perspective.

  • Rachel Strobel

    Thank you for sharing your story. I really appreciate you sharing your story and insights with us. One entrepreneur that gives workshops to young adults told me something he does to teach youth about starting a business. First he gives them all a seed (a plant seed) then they have to go plant that seed and let it grow throughout the time he is mentoring them. The seed represents their business idea and as their ideas grow and expand, so does the physical plant. It is a great way to assess action to ideas. So I always ask how many seeds have I planted this week? I always have a few plants around the house that I can and water to help me remember this concept. =)

  • Kendra Larson

    I have to say that your stories were very intense! I could not imagine being in a situation like that: a situation where I did not know the outcome; if I was going to live or die. I find it very brave that you got back out there to do it again, even though you almost crashed to your death, two times! I don’t know if I would of had that courage. I have to agree with you about taking risks. I am one of those people that do not take as many risks, I am very cautious with everything I do. I do not like to enter outside my comfort zone, and there are some moments when I wish I did. The people that go out there and take risks are the people that live life! They see things, experience things that most people don’t get to experience in their life time. I mean look at you! You are an astronaut, Test Pilot and Fighter Pilot! Those certain jobs require a great amount of risk, as you have mentioned! But besides the fact that they are dangerous, you get to live a life full of excitement! You are living a life that most people would want to live. And you are seeing things, and experiencing things that most people do not get to see. Where do you get your courage? and How can you get a person like me, to start taking more risks in life. I want to do great things, but in order for that to happen, I have to step out of my comfort zone. Thank you for sharing!

  • lshortreed

    I used to be the same way and you. I have to know the outcome I hate surprises. I definitely don’t like getting out of my comfort zone. I’ve learned though that I wont move forward in life if I don’t takes risks and make mistakes and learn from them. I get out of my comfort zone and do something crazy. I’m living life now and I hope that you do the same.

  • Cory Zaeske

    Understanding risk is a very important asset today. Almost everything you endure in has a risk vs reward factor and they way I assess it most of the time is asking myself if the reward is greater than the risk. There are times where the risk is very high but deep down you know it is just something you have to do. Understanding how to assess risk in the world today is a life skill that I think everyone needs to have.

  • masterdan55

    I agree with you peyton! How he managed to stay calm and cool was remarkable. Eliminating fear is something many people cannot do. If you wanna do something enough the risk doesn’t matter.

  • TeamGarvin

    I totally agree college can be sometimes risky with the loans we take. I think of that everyday while going through college. Will there be jobs waiting for me when I graduate, will I like the job. Sometimes the risk we take though is a good risk and gets us things we never imagined. I agree a back up plan is useful and can get us out of sticky situations.

  • Charles Fischer

    I can relate to this posting right now, I am pushing 6 decades of living, and have a chance to open a gymnastics facility in my home town, but the risk of going in debt of over 1.5 million is keeping me from pulling the trigger. The cost of the classes to meet the loans and payroll are larger than the community is willing to pay. I have to balance the risk to the benefits offered.

  • Adam

    Agreed. Knowing how to perceive risk and make a decision about it is huge now a days. Assessing risk can get you far in life when you can weigh the positives vs the negatives and are able to make an educated decision. And like you say sometimes the risk is high but you just have to go with what you think is right.

  • JeremyWahl

    I agree with you that understanding risk vs reward is a good thing to learn but also can be a tough decision sometimes. You can weigh risk vs reward with everything you do by seeing if it benefits you or not. I also agree that sometimes you make the decision to do things even though it doesn’t benefit you.

  • Kyle moore

    Great article. My fasination of space is always stimulated when reading blogs and watching videos like this. I loved hearing about the risk/benefit factor and how this was the driving force for his future endeavors. He eliminates fear and instead is called to action to do something truly remarkable.

  • Taylor Schulz

    I think that understanding risk is certainly an excellent tool to have for todays entrepreneurs. I think that it is great when people want to put themselves out there to accomplish their goals, but on the other hand, too, I think it is crucial to know the kinds of risks that will be associated with those.

  • Caleb Franklin

    Great article and very inspirational story. I really like the thought that ideas are overrated. Many ideas get washed away and never followed up on because of either a lack of commitment or a lack of resources. An idea is nothing but an empty thought without either of those things.

  • orvisbj27

    Very inspiring article. Your story demonstrates the great power of resilience in returning to a duty involving constant threats of an life threatening situation.
    I suppose people in the industry call brave pilots like yourself the “cowboys?” Although I only fixed aircraft when enrolled in the military, I often thought about going to OTS on the track to become a pilot. I enjoy your stories of the excitement which for me could have been but was never meant to be.

  • tyler

    This was a nice article, thanks for sharing! This was so inspirational. It was interesting to read how you think that ideas are somewhat overrated, I can honestly say have never heard that before. I agree with you that almost everything that we do has some form of risk, no matter what. But if the reward is greater than the risk, then why not go for it? Yeah, something bad might happen, but the reward could also happen so it is up to you to make that decision.Sometimes, even if the risk is greater, the reward might be slim but it might be a great one. Knowing how to decide when a risk is worth taking is a hard decision though, and it is something that we all can benefit from. How can we help people who never take risks?

  • Tyler C

    Thanks for sharing, not only a great story but also your thoughts on how to better approach risk and aim to make a positive impact on the challenges we face. One of the things that was addressed that really stood out to me was “In order for an individual, organization, or corporation to progress, grow, and succeed some risk must be taken.” Far too often society settles for the “safe route,” life changing events rarely come from the safe option. Thinking back on all the safe choices I’ve made really make me wonder where I could be if I took more risks. I agree that you must look at the risk/reward payoff of any situation before deciding to undergo it. But how to you really measure the reward? Is it the impact you make on society, the revenues produced, the personal feeling of success, or a combination? I feel like some situation especially ones that aim to solve the challenges society faces are hard to really quantify and require the user to just “jump in” with some uncertainties.

  • bdelbian

    It’s funny because I was just having this conversation with someone yesterday and how I seem to always be waiting for that big idea to hit, but my big problem it turns out is fear. Fear of failure. Fair that I am not adequate. Fear that what I think is a good idea actually is not. And you know what? All three of those fears, although there are countless more, could end up coming true with my next venture, but that does not matter. What matters is what you are able to learn from the experience. The first venture that I tried to start about a year ago was a complete bombshell. I came back from that with more knowledge than I had ever had before and with the confidence that next time would be different. I find that I learn best when I am able to just put myself into new situations and get the most from the experience.

  • Kaylie Mae Kuhnke

    couldn’t have said it better myself i also find fear comes to light when im about to make a big decision or give an idea and afraid that its not going to be right or not going to be good enough. taking risks is a big part in making it. i think we have to take risks or wont go anywhere trapped in a bubble to afraid to jump.