The Ranger, The Astronaut, and George R. Stewart: To the Third Millennium, and Beyond!

A recent post on this weblog calls Stewart’s Ordeal By Hunger the first ecologically-based history.  But it’s more than an ecological work.

It is also the first work to combine the ecological perspective – “The Ranger’s Perspective” – with the view from space –  “The Astronaut’s Perspective.”  By using  those two perspectives to give an ecological understanding of human events, Ordeal By Hunger can be called the first “Whole Earth” book.

Ordeal By Hunger opens with the suggestion that a reader should:  “Imagine himself…raised in space some hundreds of miles above a spot near the center of the state of Nevada, ” then describes the scene so accurately that photographs from space precisely match Stewart’s  text.  It is the first precise, accurate description of Earth from low Earth orbit in popular literature.  And the first description of the Astronaut’s view, here used for geographic understanding.

Near the end of the history, Stewart writes, “I have in the telling often stressed the scene until the reader has, I hope, come to feel the land itself as one of the chief characters of the tale.”Stewart has realized – and educated his readers about – the influence of the ecosystem on human affairs.

The world is not merely a stage; it is a chief character in any human drama.

To understand Earth and its human inhabitants, Stewart suggests, we need to observe this world from space, and from within the ecosystem.

An important part of such research is education.  The public is interested in both the ecosystem and space exploration, they fund much of the research, and so it is to the advantage of the research agencies to share their goals, methods and results.  It is also, of course, to the advantage of the citizens of nation and world, as is all true education.

50 years after the publication of Ordeal By Hunger  and 30 years after a young boy discovered Stewart’s books, an idea took shape.  The seed planted by Stewart began to sprout.  The boy, now a man, had worked with both ecologically-oriented public lands agencies, and space exploration groups.  When he discovered that NASA was tasked to do ecological research from space, Stewart’s vision blossomed out in a new proposal: That the National Park Service – the Rangers – should join with NASA – the Astronauts – to do joint earth system research and education.

The proposal became a program.  Today, NASA and selected national park sites are working together on related research ideas.  NASA uses the sites for “analogue” research – that is, to do research here on Earth in settings analogous to other worlds.  The National Park Service does related and concurrent research in the same units, using the results for better resource management.

In some stellar cases, the two groups work together – for example, during and after the 1988 Yellowstone fire, where NASA used its space and flying laboratory resources to help the park find its fire spots, and then followed up with ground truth research in the park to see how accurately remote sensing data matched ground data.

A real payoff for this partnership is in the gift of knowledge it brings the public.  Education of the public – or, as the Park Service calls it, “interpretation” – can be done much more effectively in the national parks, due to their access, their size, and their huge visitations than NASA can do it in their ten, small centers.  And visitors to the parks come ready to learn.  People who would never take a course in wildlife biology or the geology of glaciers will willingly line up behind a Ranger and walk through wilderness with enthusiasm – and what they learn they, they respect and they retain.  And since most of the nature hike groups are family-based, the members of the family can reinforce each other’s learning after the hike.

Most important, national parks welcome three hundred million visitors each year.  Not all of those, of course, will be visiting parks where NASA does research; but since Yellowstone and Death Valley are NASA-research parks, and since Yellowstone has about four million visitors each year, education about the research can be spread wide among Americans and foreign visitors. (By comparison, all NASA visitor centers combined have fewer annual visitors than Yellowstone.)

Combining NASA and the National Park Service in joint research and education just made sense. The young man presented the idea to appropriate parties, and it was adopted.   Now, several national park sites are involved in the partnership.

One of the leading sites is a national monument in Idaho:  Craters of the Moon.  The site has a long connection with NASA, stretching back to the Apollo program when Apollo moonwalkers trained with geologists in the lunar-like geography of Craters of the Moon.  Geologist (now retired) Doug Owen and Chief Naturalist Ted Stout have nurtured the relationship during the past decade.  More recently, NASA has established a base in the Monument, where it conducts extensive research.  Craters of the Moon National Monument is now the only national park site to be a Space Grant member.

During the total Eclipse of 2017, the two agencies held major public events both within and beyond the Monument – setting several visitation records along the way.   Several of the “campfire” talks were given by NASA scientists:  “Astronauts” working as “Rangers.”  Thousands of people had the flesh-and-blood chance to interact with those scientists, which brought the research to life.  (One young visitor I had the chance to talk with, for example, was inspired to consider a career in astrobiology.)

 

 

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NASA and the NPS:  Principal Investigator and Researcher for NASA Eclipse balloon experiment at the Craters of the Moon Event.  Craters of the Moon Chief Naturalist Ted Stout and a Craters Volunteer are in the left background.

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Waiting For Totality

Eclipse 2017

Totality near Craters of the Moon 

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An interesting short video has been posted about the NASA-NPS  partnership at Craters of the Moon, here.

 

 

 

For those interested in a wider focus on the program in several national parks a longer video featuring famed NASA Astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay is here. Video quality isn’t ideal, but the good Dr. McKay presents the information with wit and clarity.

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George R. Stewart had a vision far ahead of his time.  The view from space was used in several of his books, in Storm and Earth Abides as well as Ordeal By Hunger.  His ecological perspective became so ingrained in his work and thinking that by 1948 he wrote “ I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist.   This, decades before “ecologist” became a household word.

His vision, and the masterful way he shares it with readers – so subtly they don’t  realize they’re learning one of the great paradigm shifts in human thinking – planted seeds that influenced many better-known leaders of thought, like Walt Disney, and huge numbers  of the citizenry of Earth.

His work was a foundation for the Environmental Movement; he was John the Baptist to the later work of many artists and scientists.  That work which includes the The Astronaut and The Ranger, a model for exploration and science.

It is another gift of Stewart.

 

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