Climate scientist and Nasa astronaut Piers Sellers dies aged 61


Piers Sellers, a climate scientist and former astronaut who gained fame late in life for his eloquent commentary about the earth’s fragility and his own cancer diagnosis passed away at the age of 61.

British-born Sellers, who flew on three space shuttle missions between 2002 and 2010, died on Friday morning in Houston, Texas, of pancreatic cancer, Nasa said in a statement.

Sellers shared his astronaut’s perspective on climate change in Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary, Before the Flood, released earlier this year. He told DiCaprio that seeing the earth’s atmosphere as a “tiny little onion skin” from space helped him gain a fuller understanding of the planet’s delicacy.

He also wrote a New York Times op-ed about grappling with the meaning of his life’s work after learning he had terminal cancer. In both the film and the op-ed, he was optimistic, arguing that he expected human ingenuity to rescue the planet from a dire future of runaway global warming.

The Nasa administrator, Charles Bolden, described Sellers “a tremendous public servant who was dedicated to Nasa, the nation and the world”.

“Piers was dedicated to all facets of exploration,” Bolden said. “His curiosity and drive to uncover new knowledge were generously shared with audiences around the world, both from space and in wide travels to reach as many people as possible with an essential understanding of our fragile planet.

“His legacy will be one not only of urgency that the climate is warming but also of hope that we can yet improve humanity’s stewardship of this planet. His cancer diagnosis became a catalyst for him to work even harder on efforts to save the planet from global warming for the benefit of future generations.”

Bolden said Sellers “was a strident defender and eloquent spokesperson for our home planet, Earth”.

“Spacewalker and scientist, free thinker and friend to our planet, and all who seek new knowledge – to say he will be missed would be a gross understatement,” he said.

Sellers with Kerry

Originally from Crowborough in East Sussex, the University of Leeds and Edinburgh graduate gained American citizenship to fulfil a childhood dream of flying into space.

“When I was a kid, I watched the Apollo launches from across the ocean, and I thought Nasa was the holy mountain,” Sellers said earlier this year when Bolden presented him with the Distinguished Service Medal, the agency’s highest honour. “As soon as I could, I came over here to see if I could climb that mountain.”

Sellers was Deputy Director of Sciences and Exploration at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. He started working for Nasa as a scientist in 1982 and joined its astronaut corps in 1996. He logged 35 days in space during the three shuttle missions to the International Space Station and was appointed an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List in 2011.

“As an astronaut, I spacewalked 220 miles [354km] above the Earth,” Sellers wrote in his op-ed. “Floating alongside the International Space Station, I watched hurricanes cartwheel across oceans, the Amazon snake its way to the sea through a brilliant green carpet of forest, and gigantic night-time thunderstorms flash and flare for hundreds of miles along the equator.

“From this Gods eye view, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future.”

Sellers spacewalk

Sellers wrote that the best way he could imagine spending his final months was to continue working, despite knowing he would not live to see the worst of climate change or the harnessing of possible solutions.

“New technologies have a way of bettering our lives in ways we cannot anticipate,” Sellers wrote. “There is no convincing, demonstrated a reason to believe that our evolving future will be worse than our present, assuming careful management of the challenges and risks. History is replete with examples of us humans getting out of tight spots.”