A Scientists Fulfills His Dream: An Ecologist Goes to Space

December 09, 2003

by Kathryn Stelljes

Charismatic British-born astronaut Piers Sellers thrilled an audience of more than 150 on December 7 with photos and a video of his mission in October 2002 to help construct the International Space Station.

"The thing that impressed me the most was being outside in a space suit and listening to my breathing. It was dark. " said Sellers of his impressions from space. "Pam [Pam Melroy, Shuttle pilot] said, 'Sun up in one minute.' I had lost track of where the horizon was going to be. I turned I think forward, and the horizon suddenly appeared as a very thin blue line, at right angles, and went all the way across. The sun came up in the middle of it, just shooting up like a rocket. The earth lit up below me and I could see it moving toward me below my boots. What I could not believe was how big it is. When you looked at the horizon, you could see the atmosphere as a
thin layer with thunderstorms half way up. The whole thing was rotating, almost rumbling beneath you. I was not ready for the scale of it, to see the Earth as a planet, not the place you're on, but to be away from it and to see it as a planet. It is really amazing. "

An ecologist and biometeorologist by training, Sellers acknowledged the scientific value of the space station, but said its greater benefits are in moving us ahead towards manned space exploration and in fostering international relationships among 16 nations.

"The space station is the most useful, peaceful, scientific collaboration ever done," he said.

Sellers presented his experiences at the invitation of Inez Fung, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center and professor of atmospheric sciences in the College of Natural Resources' Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Before joining the astronaut corps to fulfill a lifelong dream, Sellers was principal author of a classic mathematical model that encapsulates the interaction between photosynthesis and climate. He was also the leader of numerous field campaigns that combined ground and aircraft measurements and satellite observations to define how processes at the scale of stomates on leaves could be up-scaled to that observable from satellites. Sellers and Fung (see sidebar below) were key members of the scientific team that developed the use of satellite technology and global mathematical models to study
global environmental processes.

A webcast of the talk is available at

Sidebar: Berkeley Professor Inez Fung, Pioneer in Global Climate Change

In 1990, Professor Inez Fung deduced that the terrestrial biosphere has been absorbing a large fraction of the atmospheric CO2 from fossil fuel combustion. The terrestrial carbon sink was inferred from atmospheric signatures of biospheric functioning rather than from direct observations
of the biosphere. Though controversial at the time, the terrestrial carbon sink has since been confirmed and has become a central negotiation theme in international protocols. Fung is the acknowledged pioneer and principal architect of the field of Earth System Modeling, where the complex physical, biological and chemical reactions on Earth are distilled
into mathematical equations to be solved on the fastest computers to predict Earth's climate evolution. Her current research is focused on whether global warming will be accelerated through destabilization of carbon storage in the biosphere.

Fung joined the Berkeley faculty in 1993 as the first Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences. She is the founding director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center, a campus-wide focal point for the study of the agents and consequences of climate change, and a professor in the College of Natural Resources and the Department of Earth & Planetary Science. In 2001, she was one of three women Berkeley faculty members (in a class of 72) elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.