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NASA astronaut’s early career in WCRP

Article reproduced from World Climate News No. 30 (January 2007)

WCRP enthusiast Piers Sellers was the most experienced spacewalker on board Discovery on its July 2006 mission STS-121 to the International Space Station (ISS). It was Sellers’ second spaceflight: the first was STS-112 in Atlantis in 2002 where he performed three spacewalks to help install the ISS structure. This time, four among the five-man, two-woman crew members were first-time fliers. The spacewalker’s work done on the flight was critical to NASA’s plans to resume assembly of the ISS in late August. It was also key to agency efforts to develop the means for astronauts to repair heat shield damage while in orbit.

Piers Sellers

Astronaut Piers Sellers waves to the camera in the Quest Airlock of the International Space Station prior to the start of the first scheduled session of extravehicular activity (courtesy NASA)

On one of the three scheduled spacewalks, Sellers and Michael E. Fossum demonstrated the ability to inspect and repair a shuttle’s exterior in orbit using the shuttle’s arm as a platform. The spacewalk lasted seven and a half hours. “That was quite some time to enjoy another fascinating view of the Earth’s energy and water cycle in action from 220 miles [354 km] altitude”, Sellers told the World Climate Research Programme after having returned from the space mission.

“Working in WCRP GEWEX was a very busy and
rewarding time.”

Before British-born Sellers was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate in 1996, he was involved as a climate modeller at WCRP’s Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment (GEWEX) for about 12 years. “I was lucky enough to be working in the land-atmosphere interactions area when it really exploded into an important sub-area of climate research”, Sellers recalls. After his doctorate in biometeorology at Leeds University, UK, Sellers worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center integrating surface-atmosphere models into Global Circulation Models (GCMs). It became clear back then, in 1983, that satellite data would be a key for getting a better grip on initialization, calibration and validation of the land-surface component in GCMs. For Sellers a “very busy and rewarding” time started when he instigated the International Satellite Land Surface Climatology Project (ISLSCP) together with Ichtiaque Rasool, Hans-Juergen Bolle and WCRP Director Ann Henderson-Sellers. “Bob Dickinson from the Georgia Institute of Technology, a pioneer in global climate modelling and professor of just about everything, was a tremendous influence and kind mentor throughout the tough early years” says Sellers. ISLSCP was established to promote the use of satellite data for the global land-surface data sets needed for climate studies. Since its beginning, ISLSCP has played a key role in assessing exchange processes of energy, carbon and water between the surface and the atmosphere.

Sellers and his ISLSCP colleagues and friends designed and executed several field experiments such as HAPEX (the Hydrology-Atmosphere Pilot EXperiment) in 1986, an international land-surface-atmosphere observation programme; FIFE (First ISLSCP Field Experiment) from 1987 until 1989, to establish site-average datasets for near-surface meteorology, soil moisture, and temperature; and BOREAS (BOReal Ecosystem-Atmosphere Study) from 1993 until 1996, a large-scale international interdisciplinary experiment in the northern forests of Canada to improve understanding of how boreal forests interact with the atmosphere.

One of the main challenges of all these early experiments was to make better use of satellite data to enhance surface-atmosphere models. Soon, Sellers and his colleagues realized the importance of integrating carbon fluxes in climate models to improve future climate projections.

“My early career as climate scientist was great fun and very exciting—all we did felt so revolutionary to climate science and almost all of it turned out to be very useful.”

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