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Piers Sellers - A Right Royal Week
01.11.12
 
Piers Sellers

Climate scientist and former astronaut Piers Sellers poses with his OBE medal. Credit: NASA Goddard/Elizabeth M. Jarrell
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British-born astronaut and climate scientist Piers Sellers never dreamed that he would meet Queen Elizabeth II, much less that he would make her laugh while attending an Order of the British Empire (OBE) investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Receiving the OBE award also had a touch of irony since Sellers thought at one time that he had given up his British citizenship to become an American astronaut.

"Since I was seven years old, I always wanted to be an astronaut," said Sellers. "I just thought the whole thing was interesting and fascinating. Still do."

Educated at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Leeds along with pilot training at the Royal Air Force, Sellers came to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in 1982 to design global climate models showing how the biosphere's living things interact with the climate system.

He never gave up though on his dream of becoming an astronaut. When Sellers learned that he had to be a U.S. citizen to become one, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991. "At the time, I thought it was a one-way street. Years later, in 2005, I realized that I was still a dual citizen," said Sellers.

Sellers became an astronaut in 1996 and enjoyed a stellar career, flying on three separate missions, STS-112 in 2002, STS-121 in 2006 and STS-132 in 2010, one of NASA's last shuttle missions.

In 2011 Piers returned to Goddard to serve as the deputy director of Goddard's Sciences and Exploration Directorate and continue his climate research.

Out of the blue, in the spring of 2011, Piers received a letter from Buckingham Palace inviting him there to an investiture as an OBE "for services to science." Sellers described his reaction as "gobsmacked."

There are three levels of OBE: commander, officer and member, all of which are all just below knight. Sellers is now an officer, and, as such, is now formally addressed as "Piers Sellers OBE" but is not entitled to be called "Sir" as he is not a knight -- yet.

"I was behind Annie Lennox on the New Years Honors List for 2011 announcement. We actually corresponded and she sent me a signed CD. I just couldn't make it to the ceremony until 2012," said Sellers.

He arrived a week before the Nov. 21, 2012, ceremony to visit with his mother and three of his four brothers who live in London. Before his big day, he attended a reception at the University of Edinburgh at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where he met Princess Anne, the new chancellor.

"She's impressively witty," said Sellers.

For the investiture, the three people he chose as his allotted guests were his 85-year-old mother and the two of his four brothers. The dress could be morning coat, business suit or a kilt. The instructions also cautioned against holding the queen's gloved hand too long.

"I look ridiculous in tails, don't own a kilt and feel more comfortable in a suit and so most of us just took that option," said Sellers.

Sellers and his family arrived an hour early and parked inside the palace along with 97 other honorees and their guests.

"There were people who were receiving awards all the way up to a few knights. Actress Kate Winslet received a CBE [Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire]," explained Sellers.

Although Sellers had seen the queen during her 2007 visit to Goddard, his first visit to Buckingham Palace was for his investiture. Not only did he shake the queen's hand -- briefly of course -- but actually had a short conversation with her and even made her laugh.

"She is the only queen I've known during my lifetime and she was very, very nice; polite; gracious and humorous," recalled Sellers. "She is a genuinely happy person who likes to make other people happy too."

For the rest of his life, Sellers says he will remember their conversation verbatim:

"Congratulations," said the queen.

"Good morning, Your Majesty," answered Sellers.

She smiled and had a very easy, relaxed manner. She asked if Sellers was on the last space shuttle. Sellers said that he had flown on one of the last.

"I imagine that would be pretty exciting," wondered the queen aloud.

"It is," said Sellers, "You'd absolutely love it!"

The queen laughed!

"I'd be worried about getting back," noted the queen.

"That's the trick," agreed Sellers.

The gold-colored OBE badge, suspended on a blood-red ribbon and secured by a pin, was presented in a lush, blood-red jewelry case complete with instructions. To begin with, the badge is to be worn on the left breast. Similar to U.S. military medals, recipients can purchase a smaller version for evening dress.

Protocol states that if Sellers is promoted within the order, he must return the badge to the secretary of the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, but if he is promoted between divisions, then he should keep this badge and wear both.

The badge also came with an insurance of insignia statement that it is currently valued at 65 British pounds but that it can only be replaced if the loss is verified by a police report and that its replacement value may increase over time.

Piers and his family took photographs in the quadrangle and then went to a celebratory luncheon where each delighted in taking turns wearing the medal.

To date, Sellers has only worn the medal during that family lunch.

"The big thrill was meeting the queen," says Sellers. "My mother was also very pleased and delighted the whole day and a young footman looked after her nicely. Everything was very smooth and polished. It was a royal week!"

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.