Phil Townsend making leaf level measurements with a spectrometer.

Forest and wildlife ecology professor Phil Townsend is in Houston this month to train astronaut candidates at the Johnson Space Flight Center. eCALS caught up with Townsend via email to find out more about this experience.

eCALS: How did you end up at the Johnson Space Flight Center this summer?

Townsend: I’ve been funded by NASA for many years, looking at how we can use NASA’s earth-observing information—information gathered using remote sensing instruments—to understand the distribution and function of vegetation. A big focus of this work is to better understand how terrestrial ecosystems are responding to environmental change.

So now I am providing training to astronaut candidates on how remotely sensed data are used to measure ecosystem function on earth. Things like: how do we measure biological processes and their variation on Earth? What remote sensing technologies allow us to do this? What new approaches can we deploy on the International Space Station to help us better understand terrestrial biology and how it is changing?

eCALS: Why do astronauts-in-training need to learn about remote sensing?

Townsend: The International Space Station (ISS) is now being viewed as a platform for earth observation. Given the expense of putting satellites into orbit, the ISS is seen as a cost-effective approach for deploying new earth-observing technologies that are not currently slated for launch on satellites in the near future. With this new emphasis, the astronauts need to know more about why they are deploying these instruments, what they measure, and how the data will be used. So, they are receiving training in this new area.

eCALS: How did you get tapped for this project?

Townsend: The program managers I work with at NASA asked me to lead this training.

eCALS: How did you react when you first found out you’d be training astronauts?

Townsend: It was kind of a shock. My first reaction was “Why me?” There are lots of folks who do great remote sensing work on Earth’s terrestrial vegetation, but I guess I am interested in a mix of new-fangled approaches, new technologies and new science questions that may be of interest to the astronauts.

And of course, when I was a boy I was definitely one of those kids who wanted to be an astronaut.  Maybe not so much anymore, but it’s fun to meet up with real astronauts and try to share my enthusiasm for what NASA does in earth science and global ecology.

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