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Journeying Between Space and Earth
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Astronaut Piers Sellers

Scientist Piers Sellers is a former astronaut who now works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Image Credit: NASA

At seven years old, Piers Sellers decided he was going to be an astronaut. He asked adults what he needed to do; they suggested he study science.

"Science grew on me slowly, to be honest," Sellers says. At first, science was fuzzy; it only started to make sense for Sellers when he was a teenager taking science courses in high school. "My favorite was biology, followed closely by physics. I found out I really liked science a lot, and I would have been quite happy being a scientist my entire life."

Sellers attended the University of Edinburgh and Leeds University, both in the United Kingdom. He studied ecology and then moved into climate science and climate modeling. He became a scientist for NASA researching climate change and computer modeling of the climate system. Sellers was a project scientist for Terra, the first satellite in the Earth Observing System, launched in December 1999. EOS is a coordinated series of polar-orbiting and low-inclination satellites designed for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere and oceans. "It was a tremendous success -- and still is working," Seller reminisces. "That's one of my favorite projects I've worked on. We got an awful lot of good science out of it." Terra, which was designed to work for only five years, has been operating for more than 11 years.

Becoming an astronaut was not easy for Sellers. "It was fairly brutal," Sellers says. "I got in on the third application." After a week of interviews and physical exams, Sellers went home to wait. Eventually, the call came, and he reported for training. While Sellers loves studying Earth, he says "there's nothing like being blown off the planet, running around outside your spacecraft doing spacewalks, and then coming back down to Earth." Sellers travelled on the space shuttle to the International Space Station three times, in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Today, Sellers works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where he manages a variety of science programs. While he occasionally helps with the astrophysics and heliophysics programs, his real passion is climate science, an area where many exciting things are happening at NASA.

Sellers and his colleagues currently are working on several satellites, including a laser satellite that will measure ice thickness from space and a radar satellite that will be able to see precipitation like rain or snow so scientists can study the phenomena further. Sellers also is looking forward to the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory on the surface of Mars in August of 2012. The Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, is a laboratory on wheels that will investigate Mars' climate and surface.

Astronaut Piers Sellers spacewalking

Piers Sellers flew on three space shuttle missions. During those flights, he spent almost 41 hours performing spacewalks. Image Credit: NASA

While Sellers may miss his time as an astronaut, he enjoys working with the people at Goddard. "There are so many people of all ages here who are so enthusiastic about what they're doing. Almost every day somebody walks in my office with a new idea. It's just thrilling to see all this constructive positive energy going somewhere useful. There's a genius around every corner."

For the people who want to be part of that atmosphere, Sellers recommends they keep studying science. "It gets more interesting the further you go, and the further you go, the more you get to choose what you do. For most scientists, it's like a hobby. I can't imagine anything better than to get up in the morning and think, 'I really want to go to work and do science.'"

Sellers considers himself fortunate to have had such a long and interesting career as part of NASA. "NASA is absolutely on the leading edge of doing work to understand our planet. It's probably one of the most important scientific tasks around today."

Related Resources:
› Preflight Interview: Piers Sellers, Mission Specialist
› Astronaut Bio: P. Sellers   →
› Space Explorers Series
› NASA Career Resources

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies