George R. Stewart was an “inventor” of the Whole Earth Vision – the recent realization that Earth, in an immense universe, is one small, blue, life-bearing place, only fully understood if it’s explored from two perspectives – that of the ecologist, who studies it from ground level, and that of the astronaut, who examines Earth from space.
Stewart used that vision for the first time in Ordeal By Hunger. He begins the book by asking the reader to “imagine yourself poised in space” in what we would now call LEO or Low Earth Orbit, about 200 miles up. In the book’s Foreword he describes northern Nevada precisely, as photos taken from the International Space Station reveal. (Stewart used the techniques of fiction to make the history dramatic and engaging, and did that so well that some readers still think they’re reading a novel. They’re not; they’re reading history.)
The book then moves into the ecologist’s point of view, ground level, as Stewart makes the case that the Donner Party’s tragedy was the result of the party’s ignorance of the ecosystems it passed through. At the book’s end, he writes, “It should be obvious…I consider the land a character in the work.” The land, of course, is the ecosystem.
Today, most of us can wander our ecosystems easily. So far, the perspective of the astronaut is restricted to a lucky few. But – would Stewart not love this? – we can watch Earth from LEO on a continuous feed, here.
NASA Strategic Planner Jesco von Puttkamer suggested we are now living in the “New Enlightenment of Spaceflight.” That Enlightenment began with Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision. The New Enlightenment expanded its reach exponentially with the first photos of the Whole Earth from space, most dramatically “Earthrise” from Apollo 8. von Puttkamer’s slogan for the age, borrowed by Star Trek for the series’ first movie, is
Space: The Human Adventure is Just Beginning
Today, we know Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision from both perspectives – of the land, and from LEO. We have joined von Puttkamer’s New Enlightenment of Spaceflight, and gained Stewart’s Whole Earth vision and have a greater understanding of and love for our home planet.
We have become enlightened.
Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University