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Remembering Piers Sellers: scientist, astronaut and friend

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NASA astronaut Piers Sellers is seen in the Cupola aboard the International Space Station during STS-132’s mission to the orbiting laboratory. Credits: NASA

NASA astronaut Piers Sellers is seen in the Cupola aboard the International Space Station during STS-132’s mission to the orbiting laboratory. Credits: NASA

When scientist and former astronaut Piers Sellers was a child in the United Kingdom, Apollo missions inspired him to dream of coming to the United States to work at NASA. He fulfilled that childhood dream when he began his climate research at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in 1982, launching a career at the space agency that spanned more than three decades. Sellers passed away at the age of 61 on Dec. 23, 2016, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

The Colorado River snakes across this view from top left (near the Space Shuttle stabilizer), to the lower right, where the Grand Canyon gorge can be detected. This image was captured on Oct. 13, 2002, during Sellers’ mission aboard STS-112. Credits: NASA

The Colorado River snakes across this view from top left (near the Space Shuttle stabilizer), to the lower right, where the Grand Canyon gorge can be detected. This image was captured on Oct. 13, 2002, during Sellers’ mission aboard STS-112. Credits: NASA

During his time at NASA, Sellers served as a scientist studying climate change at Goddard before being selected into the astronaut corps in 1996. As an astronaut, he flew to the International Space Station in 2002 (STS-112), 2006 (STS-121) and 2010 (STS-132), where he carried out six spacewalks during the assembly of the orbiting laboratory. The vantage point of space gave him a deeper appreciation for Earth’s fragility, and strengthened his passion for studying climate change and sharing his knowledge on the subject with audiences around the world.

From low earth orbit, astronauts have a unique perspective from which to view weather phenomena such as the cloud tops of thunderstorm cells. Cumulonimbus clouds tops (top half of image) were forming over the Gulf of Nicoya along the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica when the image was taken. This image was captured on Oct. 23, 2002. Credits: NASA

From low earth orbit, astronauts have a unique perspective from which to view weather phenomena such as the cloud tops of thunderstorm cells. Cumulonimbus clouds tops (top half of image) were forming over the Gulf of Nicoya along the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica when the image was taken. This image was captured on Oct. 23, 2002. Credits: NASA

In a New York Times opinion piece in 2016, Sellers wrote:

As an astronaut, I spacewalked 220 miles above the Earth. Floating alongside the International Space Station, I watched hurricanes cartwheel across oceans, the Amazon snake its way to the sea through a brilliant green carpet of forest, and gigantic nighttime thunderstorms flash and flare for hundreds of miles along the Equator. From this God’s-eye-view, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future.

The wide, multi-island zone in the Rio Negro (Black River) shown in this image from the International Space Station is one of two, long "archipelagoes" upstream of the city of Manaus (not shown) in central Amazonia, Brazil. Ninety kilometers of the total 120 kilometers length of this archipelago appear in this view. This image was captured on Sept. 2, 2006. Credits: NASA

The wide, multi-island zone in the Rio Negro (Black River) shown in this image from the International Space Station is one of two, long “archipelagoes” upstream of the city of Manaus (not shown) in central Amazonia, Brazil. Ninety kilometers of the total 120 kilometers length of this archipelago appear in this view. This image was captured on Sept. 2, 2006. Credits: NASA

Sellers published more than 70 papers, 30 of them as first author, and served as Project Scientist for the first large Earth Observing System platform, Terra, which launched in 1998. He worked on global climate problems, particularly those involving interactions between the biosphere and the atmosphere, and was involved in constructing computer models of the global climate system, satellite data interpretation and conducting large-scale field experiments in the United States, Canada, Africa and Brazil. After serving in the astronaut corps, Sellers returned to Goddard and was named Deputy Director of Sciences and Exploration. He was deeply interested in the role of science in the future development of human society, particularly with regard to global environmental issues and associated economic and political issues. He was also seeking funding for a new Earth science instrument concept for the space station.

Har (or Black) Lake is located in the western part of Mongolia within the Valley of Lakes--part of a system of closed basins that stretches across central Asia. This oblique view captures the dynamic nature of the landscape of Har Lake. The lake is encircled by sand dune fields which encroach on the lower slopes of the Tobhata Mountains to the west and south. This image was captured on Sept. 15, 2006.

Har (or Black) Lake is located in the western part of Mongolia within the Valley of Lakes–part of a system of closed basins that stretches across central Asia. This oblique view captures the dynamic nature of the landscape of Har Lake. The lake is encircled by sand dune fields which encroach on the lower slopes of the Tobhata Mountains to the west and south. This image was captured on Sept. 15, 2006.

I remember talking with Piers about the difficulties scientists have in communicating complex concepts and the caveats and limitations we are all trained to provide—while still being simple and accessible.  Some at the agency have viewed “science” and “human spaceflight” as separate independent efforts.  Piers and I shared the alternate view that science is the only way we can understand what we observe as humans explore—that the two efforts were tightly linked.  Apollo led to a new view of the Earth as isolated and fragile, and was important in leading the agency to have an Earth Sciences program with all the satellites being operated today.  We both shared great satisfaction as ISS matured to have Earth Science instruments that were enhancements and technology demonstrations to help us better understand the Earth and its climate.

Hurricane Gordon, as photographed by a space station crewmember on Sep. 15, 2006. At the time the image was taken, the sustained winds were 85 nautical miles per hour with gusts to 105 nautical miles per hour. Credits: NASA

Hurricane Gordon, as photographed by a space station crewmember on Sep. 15, 2006. At the time the image was taken, the sustained winds were 85 nautical miles per hour with gusts to 105 nautical miles per hour. Credits: NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote of Sellers’ passing:

Today we lost a tremendous public servant who was dedicated to NASA, the nation and the world. He was a strident defender and eloquent spokesperson for our home planet, Earth. Spacewalker and scientist, free thinker and friend to our planet, and all who seek new knowledge, to say he will be missed would be a gross understatement.

This spectacular image of sunset on the Indian Ocean was taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The image presents an edge-on, or limb view, of the Earth’s atmosphere as seen from orbit. The Earth’s curvature is visible along the horizon line, or limb, that extends across the image from center left to lower right. This image was captured during Sellers’ last mission to space, aboard STS-132. Credits: NASA

This spectacular image of sunset on the Indian Ocean was taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The image presents an edge-on, or limb view, of the Earth’s atmosphere as seen from orbit. The Earth’s curvature is visible along the horizon line, or limb, that extends across the image from center left to lower right. This image was captured during Sellers’ last mission to space, aboard STS-132. Credits: NASA

 

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)