To See: George R. Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision Realized

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

George R. Stewart’s Prophetic Whole Earth Vision, and a Canadian Coin



In a recent issue of the excellent CBC New website,  journalist Bob MacDonald describes a new Canadian coin that honors the 25th anniversary of the first spaceflight by a female Canadian Scientist-Astronaut, Dr. Roberta Bondar.  The coin, beautifully-designed, has two remarkable features. Concave on one side and convex on the other, it carries a sense of the roundness of Earth.  And its colorful rendering of the image-map of Canada from space glows in the dark to reveal patterns of man-made lights in that northern country.  (The Canadians were also kind enough to include a good part of their neighboring nation to the south on the coin.)

Since this is a silver coin, durably made, it will be a long-lasting — “a deep time” — reminder of North American geography as it appeared the early 21st century.

In his article, MacDonald emphasizes what he seems to consider a new idea – that space and conservation are two sides of the same coin.  The article is well-written, and will open up that idea for the first time to many readers.  But the idea is NOT new – NASA is tasked, to do ecological research.  And that, in part, is certainly because George R.Stewart, nearly a quarter of a century before the NASA organic act was written, and 33 years before the first Earth Day,  in Ordeal By Hunger and his ecological novels, presented the concept to a massive audience of literate, general readers.

Ordeal By Hunger, written in 1936,  opens with a view of Nevada from orbit so accurately described that when  International Space Station Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu  photographed Nevada from space his images matched Stewart’s words almost exactly.  Stewart’s history of the Donner Party then comes down to Earth, to focus on the role of the ecosystem in the fate of the emigrants.  Thus, he completes what has become known as The Whole Earth vision – understanding Earth from within its ecosystem, and  from without,  as one small, beautiful, place in the universe.

Stewart follows that same approach in his first ecological novel, Storm.  The novel begins with a view of Earth from Earth orbit; moves into the ecosystem to tell its story; then ends by  taking the reader to an imaginary platform on Venus, describing the tiny bright light called Earth from millions of miles away.

Once again George R. Stewart proved to be a prophet, and trailblazer for our time.  His books helped lay the foundation for the view of Earth found on the new Canadian coin, and for our sense of the Whole Earth.

Buying a Beer For Cosmonaut Sali

George R. Stewart, as he often does for his readers, took me places I had only dreamed of when I was a lad.  Stewart’s emphasis on Earth and its ecosystems encouraged me to become a ranger; and I did that for both one state park system and the National Park Service.  Stewart’s Whole Earth vision, describing Earth from space in Ordeal By Hunger, Storm, and Earth Abides, encouraged me to seek work with NASA.  Fortunately – thanks to Mary Valleau of NASA who had also worked for the NPS, and her boss Garth Hull – I was hired as a NASA “Aerospace Education Specialist” – a traveling field educator who helped teachers, students, and communities learn about STEAM – the social and natural science, technology, engineering, art, and math required for spaceflight.  I worked at AESP for nearly ten years, first as State Representative for Southern California and Arizona; then as SR for Nevada and Montana.  (I have a Secondary Credential, BA and MA, and worked as a teacher on secondary and college levels.)

There’s a book in that work.

It was wonderful to work with students and teachers.  And working with astronauts and scientists to help develop educational material to teach about their missions was a milestone of my teaching career.  There were many adventures – one thing we did was to go to Johnson Space Center to learn about upcoming missions, which included going through some small sample of astronaut training.  So I practiced docking the shuttle to MIR station; and road along on the high-fidelity shuttle lift-off, abort, and landing simulator.  That was an E ticket ride.  I also met many of the Astronauts, including Barbara Morgan who was the first Mission Specialist with a teaching background. Barbara opened the door to space for teachers; several others have since gone up, full astronauts; two were  spacewalkers.  (Later members of the program would be known as Educator Astronauts)

But one of the most memorable encounters happened in the summer of 1997 at a bar near Johnson Space Center.  The 40 or so of us in the program were at the Center to be educated about the upcoming International Space Station construction and missions.  There were many briefings by Astronauts and astronaut crews who were to be involved.  William “Shep” Shepard, who was to be Commander of Expedition I – the first manning of the ISS – spoke at JSC; then invited those of us who were interested to meet him at the legendary Outpost, an Astronaut and scientist watering hole for 30 years. (You’ve seen the place if you’ve seen Space Cowboys.)

Only a few of us went.  I sat next to a very quiet man, who I didn’t know, and who had come there with Shep Shepard. I asked him how he knew Shepard.  “I’m Sali,” he said, “The first Uzbekistani Cosmonaut.  I go up on the Shuttle in January.”  After I got over the surprise, I decided to try out some high school Russian on him.  But he insisted on English:  “Shep said if I want to learn English I should go to a bar.”

“Well, then – can I buy you a beer?”


And so I did.

The rest of the evening we listened to Shepard, a former Navy Seal, explain why we will not get to Mars without the Russians.  “I used to fight these guys,” he said, “but when it comes to long-duration space exploration they’ve written the book.  We need to work with them.”  We went back to our hotel, they went back to the Astronaut quarters.  I’d like to think that evening, and that beer, put a small stone in the cathedral of mankind.

Later that summer, I had the chance to work with high school students from the former Soviet Union.  One of the girls was from Uzbekistan.  “Sure.  Sali.”  “You know Sali?” she asked, in a wondering voice.  “Bought him a beer.”  My stock went very high; hers went higher with her companions.

Sali went up the next January; then went again, to spend nearly six months on the International Space Station. Click on the photo for more information:

220px-SharipovSalizhan Shakirovich Sharipov Салижан Шакирович Шарипов

All that from doors George R. Stewart opened.

I sometimes think of Sali, and his space explorer colleagues, looking out at Earth from orbit, and seeing the state of Nevada from space looking just like GRS described in Ordeal By Hunger – long before anyone had seen or photographed it. In fact, I was later to send up that passage, and ask Astronaut Ed Lu to photograph it from space – a way of honoring my old mentor GRS.

The Outpost, in a way, also reflected GRS’s work.  In East of the Giants and Earth Abides, fires sweep through to provide closure to the tale.  And thus it was with the Outpost:  In 2010, after a landlord threatened the long-time owners, a mysterious fire burned it to the ground.  Like Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club at Edwards Air Force Base, the mythical Judith Godoy’s ranch, and the post-apocalyptic University of California at Berkeley, the Outpost passed into legend.  But it had done its job well.  Certainly it did so, on the night that, inspired by George R. Stewart, I bought Cosmonaut Sali a beer.