Taking Greece into the space age


‘Excellence, meritocracy, performance and ethos are our guiding principles,’ Stamatios Krimigis says, noting that it took him some time to agree to the invitation from the Greek government to head the country’s first space agency.

TAGS: Science, Technology, Interview

If there is one thing that Stamatios Krimigis yearns to do, it’s travel to the icy Europa. “I would love to sit there looking out at the colors of Jupiter and its moons orbiting around it,” says the esteemed scientist and academic. “It is our solar system’s most spectacular planet,” he adds as we gaze out at the rather mundane view of the city from the window of his Athens home.

Obligations as head emeritus of the Space Department Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in the United States and at NASA usually keep Krimigis away from his native Greece, but the next two years will see him spending a lot more time in Athens after he was appointed at the head of the newly established Hellenic Space Agency. The task at hand is to “build an agency from the bottom up” by uniting disparate state agencies under one new body, he explains.

“Excellence, meritocracy, performance and ethos are our guiding principles,” says Krimigis, noting that it took him some time to agree to the invitation from the Greek government. “I wanted certain assurances that the principles I have described will be respected and applied. Another reason I agreed was that many of my colleagues here asked me to help in this new endeavor and I felt it was something I had to do. This is not an opportunity that comes around again.”

Since the 1980s, when he served as a business consultant, and as a member of at least five different committees, Krimigis has been championing Greece’s entry into the burgeoning space science market – one in which several Greek companies are involved.

“It is everyone’s duty to the nation, the duty of all political parties, to support this effort,” he says, stressing that Greece is a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) and needs to make advances in the field. “We’re not trying to build a spaceship,” he says, adding that the focus is on scientific instruments. “It is technology that is also important to the country’s security and this is the only way that we can acquire it. Our eastern neighbors figured this out 20 years ago.”

In his recent book “Taxidi sto iliako systima” (“Traveling in the solar system,” published by Papadopoulos), Krimigis describes his experience as the only scientist in the world who has “traveled” to every planet in the Earth’s solar system thanks to instruments he has designed.

His first successful mission was the launch to Mars of the Mariner 4 spaceship for flyby exploration in 1964, but his 50-year career hasn’t always been full of high notes. He remembers, for example, “24 hours of anxiety and terror” when the New Horizons space probe, launched in 2006, “went missing” on its long way to Pluto, or how the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission came close to failing back in the 1990s because of a technical glitch.

Today, every spaceship has thousands of microchips conducting a constant digital dialogue. Does all this technology help? “There is always a huge possibility not of error but of unforeseen circumstances, so we always use the first few months of a space mission to see how the spaceship is going,” he says. Voyagers which have been transmitting data to Earth for the past 40 years, he adds, operate with simple commands and just 70KB of memory.

Krimigis remembers the start of the space age and the West’s shock at the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik in 1957. He firmly believes that the space race saved the world from a certain war and believes that all future space missions will be the product of international partnerships, mainly because of their enormous cost. A planned 500 billion dollar manned mission to Mars is no exception.

“We will be stepping foot on Mars as explorers, not as colonizers,” the expert stresses, explaining that the possibility of inhabiting a planet that has almost no atmosphere and radiation levels that are lethal to man are zero. “Who wants to live below ground in order to be shielded from the radiation and to have to learn to grow crops on that surface in order to survive?” he asks.

The solar system is a frontier that has not been sufficiently explored, says Krimigis, adding that the space community’s focus is now on the quest for planets that are friendly to man and on closer exploration of worlds that have water, such as Europa, Titan and Enceladus.

Krimigis was born on the eastern Aegean island of Chios in 1938, growing up into an A-plus student thanks to his mother’s insistence for high grades. He started studying at the University of Minnesota in the US in 1956, where a chance encounter with Professor James Van Allen changed his life. The world-renowned academic saw something in the young student and invited him to his postgraduate program at the University of Iowa, where Krimigis also went on to do his PhD. Among other tasks, Van Allen asked him to build a special piece of equipment that would be used on the Mariner 4 spaceship to Mars. “I finished it just a month before the launch,” he remembers.

“Back then we always built two spaceships because one usually ended up in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Krimigis, explaining the fate of Mariner 3. “I was terribly disappointed, but the engineering team spotted the mistake and built a new spaceship within three weeks that went off to the Red Planet.”

Success in this field, stresses Krimigis, is not just about skill but also the result of cooperation, an esprit de corps. “Space is collaborative,” he says, explaining that it is important for the public to understand that these teams working day and night for years on end are not doing so just because this is the job, but because “they are making history and generating future knowledge.”