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Internationally recognized oceanographer and Director of Earth Sciences Michael Freilich left an unparalleled legacy as a leader in developing satellite science when he passed in August of 2020. He helped to build CEOAS’ long history of research in satellite remote sensing, which now spans sensor and satellite mission design, development of algorithms for retrievals of both physical and biological variables, and applications of satellite observations to study a host of oceanographic and Earth science research questions. He left Oregon State in 2006 to become the Director of Earth Sciences at NASA. Over the next 13 years, he increased the annual budget by nearly 50% to $1.9B and revitalized the agency’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites.
In honor of his contributions and commitment to international collaboration, the European Space Agency and NASA named a key ocean observation satellite which launched on November 21 after Freilich — the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich.
"This is a fitting honor for a man who helped transform space-based Earth observation and has brought together the best contributions from our global Earth science community to improve our collective understanding of how our planet is changing," said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA's Satellite and Information Service, in a NASA press release.
CEOAS faculty also remember Freilich for his tenacity and brilliance. "Mike meant so much more than NASA satellites to me,” said Jonathan Nash, a professor of physical oceanography at CEOAS. "His intensity was his trademark — he did everything 100% — and I knew I could always count on Mike for a mix of critical feedback and unbridled enthusiasm for some wacky idea to probe the unknown. I always appreciated this in Mike. He is missed."
CEOAS Distinguished Professor emeritus Dudley Chelton spoke of not just Freilich’s commitment to science, but his compassion. "I had the distinct pleasure of knowing Mike for 45 years dating back to 1975 when we first met as fellow graduate students. More than anyone else I know, he lived his life with intention, purpose and integrity. He also lived true to the spirit of his favorite quote from Albert Einstein: 'The life of the individual only has meaning insofar as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful.' Mike’s kindness, wit and authenticity will be greatly missed.”
Learn more about the Sentinel-6, remote sensing research at Oregon State, and how you can honor Freilich’s legacy.
Michael H. Freilich obituary in the March, 2021 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
NASA invited the public to take part in virtual activities and events ahead of the launch of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite, an international collaboration between NASA and several partners. This is the first of two identical satellites to be launched sequentially to continue observations of sea level change for at least the next decade.
In recognition of his accomplishments as a scientist and administrator, and his commitment to educating young scientists, the Michael H. Freilich Memorial Fund supports research experiences for members of historically underrepresented groups through an undergraduate fellowship in remote sensing research in the Earth sciences.
From sea-level rise, to ocean circulation, to phytoplankton biomass, CEOAS research in satellite remote sensing of the ocean dates back to the early 1980s.