Ex-as­tro­naut a cli­mate ex­pert

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Ben Nuck­ols

wash­ing­ton» Piers Sell­ers, a cli­mate sci­en­tist and for­mer as­tro­naut who gained fame late in life for his elo­quent com­men­tary about Earth’s fragility and his own cancer di­ag­no­sis, has died. He was 61.

Sell­ers died Fri­day morn­ing in Hous­ton 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 in the fall. He told DiCaprio that see­ing 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.

“Piers de­voted his life to sav­ing the planet,” NASA ad­min­is­tra­tor Charles Bolden said in a state­ment. “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.”

In the op-ed, 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. There is no con­vinc­ing, demon­strated rea­son to be­lieve that our evolv­ing fu­ture will be worse than our present, as­sum­ing care­ful man­age­ment of the chal­lenges and risks,” Sell­ers wrote. “His­tory is re­plete with ex­am­ples of us hu­mans get­ting out of tight spots.”

The British-born Sell­ers was deputy di­rec­tor for sci­ences and ex­plo­ration at NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter in Green­belt, Md. He started work­ing for NASA as a sci­en­tist in 1982 and joined its as­tro­naut corps in 1996. He made three flights to the in­ter­na­tional space sta­tion, the last in 2010.

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

Piers Sell­ers, a cli­mate sci­en­tist and for­mer as­tro­naut died Fri­day. He was 61. As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

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