“It was better than a reality show, because it was reality,” the climate scientist and retired astronaut Piers Sellers told me as he recalled his coming of age during the Space Race. This was the era of the first satellites, exploratory probes, and advances in spaceflight that culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing, giving a sense of the present hurtling toward the future.
“It all fascinated me,” he said, “and because of it I became a scientist. I’m not kidding. That was the thing which made me become a scientist.”
But Piers Sellers didn’t just become a scientist whose work became crucial to the development of climate studies. In his career’s second stage, he became an astronaut who spent a total of 839 hours in space, helped to build the International Space Station, and completed six spacewalks, which not only gave him leadership and stature among his peers as an extravehicular activity specialist, but also a unique perspective on the vulnerability of our planet. After retiring as an astronaut, he worked as deputy director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, pioneering research that would change the paradigm of how to use satellite data from space and apply it more readily to life on Earth.
“Purely on science alone, Piers was an icon — a force of nature defending our fragile Earth,” said his former colleague Colleen Hartman, director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at Goddard. British-born and a naturalized American citizen, such was the stature of Sellers’s work that none other than Neil Armstrong himself endorsed him for an Order of the British Empire (OBE).