Episode 18: Piers Sellers

I first heard of Piers Sellers some time in the mid-1990s, on a trip to the southern BOREAS field site when I was in my master’s program at the University of Montana. The talk was something on the order of “… have you heard? Piers is entering the astronaut program!” which, at the time, came as a complete non-sequitur to me. Why would someone at the peak of an influential scientific career at NASA choose to walk away?

Credit: NASA

At the time, Piers had already made some fundamental progress in at least three areas of science: bringing land-atmosphere interactions and ecology into atmospheric and climate models; working with Compton Tucker to show that weather satellites can be used to generate global estimates of plant productivity; and organizing unprecedented field campaigns like FIFE and BOREAS to show how it all came together — that yes, you really can scale physiological processes from cellular to global levels. As my grad advisor Steve Running says: nontrivial accomplishments.

Then, 20 years later, I started making my list of who I’d like to interview for Forecast, and Piers was on the list. It’s a long list, though, and Piers’ background edges more towards biogeochemistry and away from physical climate — my area at Nature. But then I read Piers’ moving Opinion piece at the NY Times, in which he announced his diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I realized I’d better try as soon as possible, and with the help of Compton Tucker — one of Piers’ closest friends and neighbor — I was able  to arrange a call.

If you read the NY Times piece, it’ll come as no surprise, but Piers was incredibly gracious, funny, optimistic and passionate about life and science, which, for Piers, are more or less the same thing.

I learned, at last, that he’d been trying for some time to get into the astronaut program. Once in, he stayed for 15 years, conducting three space walks and six trips to the international space station. Eventually, he wanted to make space for younger astronauts to join the program and chose to return to NASA, this time as acting Deputy Director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate … AND … Acting Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The three careers span an incredible range: individual scientist, astronaut (or operator, as Piers calls it), and administrator. Now, Piers estimates that he has about 500 days left, and has narrowed in on family and work as the highest priority — with climate change at the forefront.

But it’s not all serious stuff. Piers also tells me how he brought his grade school’s charter into space … although maybe it was a copy!

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