Syracuse University Magazine


Waleed Abdalati '86

Understanding Earth from Above

Waleed Abdalati has treasured all things NASA since he was a little kid who spent weekends painstakingly reenacting the Apollo 11 moon landing with his best friend Matt. They’d start out drinking Tang in Matt’s kitchen and then take a slow-motion walk to the backyard shed, ceremoniously cradling their imaginary space helmets under one arm. “We’d get in, shut the door, do a countdown, and bang ourselves violently against the walls of the shed for a while,” says Abdalati, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the College of Engineering and Computer Science (E&CS). “And then we’d stop, step out, and be on the moon, right there in Matt’s backyard.”

Decades later, during a two-year assignment as NASA’s chief scientist, Abdalati took part in—for real—another momentous event in spaceflight history: the successful Mars landing of the Curiosity rover in August 2012. “Watching that unfold—viewing the console room as the first images came down to the mission control team—was truly amazing,” he says. “It’s a story of blood, sweat, tears, triumph, failures along the way, and success—a really powerful one that illustrates the emotional and human element to all we do at NASA.”

The union of emotion and science holds great appeal for Abdalati, whose enthusiasm expanded from engineering to Earth science during graduate studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU). He earned a doctoral degree at CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in 1996, going on to work at NASA as a scientist for 12 years before returning to CIRES as a geography professor and director of the Earth Science and Observation Center. He took a temporary leave from CU from January 2011 to December 2012 to accept the chief scientist post at NASA, an assignment he refers to as “quite possibly the greatest job in the world,” allowing him “a front-row seat to some of society’s most fascinating technical and scientific achievements.” As chief scientist, Abdalati was principal science advisor to the NASA administrator, working to assure alignment among the priorities of NASA, the White House, Congress, and the scientific community. “What we really do at NASA is pursue answers to questions that are at the heart of the human spirit—the things people have wondered about since people have begun wondering,” he says. “From the time humans could stand upright and look upward, they wondered about the stars.”

Now director of CIRES—an academic institute with nearly 500 researchers, faculty, and administrative staff and close to 200 students, working in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—Abdalati focuses his research on using satellite and airborne remote-sensing techniques to understand how the Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets are changing and how that affects sea level rise and climate. “I’m excited by this research, in part, because these regions of the Earth are so beautiful,” says Abdalati, who spoke to E&CS graduates at the college’s 2012 Convocation. “The first time I saw pictures of and was fortunate to do some work in the Arctic, I realized this is nature at its most magnificent.” Ultimately, though, what energizes Abdalati is the work’s importance and potential. “We’re trying to understand sea level rise, which is something that matters to hundreds of millions of people worldwide,” he says. “That’s the order of magnitude of the number of people who would be affected by a rise in the Earth’s oceans of three feet or more. That’s what speaks to me.” —Amy Speach