After Fifteen Space Missions, He Dreams of ‘’Introducing” the Universe to Children
The grandeur of a human being is shown not only through their professional accomplishments, but also through their everyday behavior towards their fellow human beings. Thanasis Economou is a unique Greek who has helped in over fifteen difficult space missions for NASA and for other countries . What is more, he is the next-door neighbour with wisdom, modesty and knowledge, all of which are a rare combination in our days.
Pictures: Dora Topalidou (www.brightside.gr)
We met at the Observatory of Thessaloniki, at the facilities of the University of Aristotle, with the help of colleague Yianis Seiradakis. The 79-year-old astrophysicist was happy to talk about his very difficult childhood years. He was born in the village of Ziaka, Grevenon and later went to Albania, Yugoslavia,Czechoslovakia and ended up in the United States, more specifically in Chicago and NASA. He talks about his accomplishments, his faith and his willingness to take part in space missions with the accomplished group in Chicago.
By all accounts, our country may befamous for its sun, beautiful islands, clear seas, unique gastronomy, and the hospitality of its people. The example of Thanasis Economou is a light of hope for the enlightened minds of our youth who find obstacles in modern Greece and who “lend” their dreams and knowledge to other countries in the world.
The eminent Greek physicist, senior scientist at the Astrophysics Laboratory and Space Research at the University of Chicago has worked close to fifty years with NAAS, which may be something of a world record in itself. Before he could reach this level of collaboration and world recognition for his scientific projects, he went through difficult years. The story of his childhood years is very interesting to all of us…
“I have this image of myself as a child who would be outdoors at night looking and enjoying the company of both the sky and the stars. At that time there was no light pollution and the sky was surprisingly full of stars. This was at a location of 900 meters of the village Ziakos and about 1,450 meters from the mountain of Orliaka, Yrevenon. All this was an oasis for me and naturally I never believed back then while looking at the stars with my father and solving maths problems that I would, after the age of 50 or 60, become part of space missions and observe planets, comets, stars with the help of state-of-the-art machinery,” explainsMrEconomou on Humanstorie.gr and adds:
“I was born in a village to the left of Yrevenon, but it was during a time when things were bad in Greece. There was the occupation and a civil war. There were no schools and there was poverty everywhere. My father, who got up to fourth grade of grammar school, taught me a little mathematics while I was lying in bed. He gave me some exercises to do and this knowledge from him, even though small, made a big difference in my development.”
Due to the civil war they left the village on foot, together with other children. They went past the Albanian borders and reached Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. However, his love of numbers, mathematics and physics was apparent to the teachers who encouraged him to study nuclear physics in Prague. Slowly, the difficulties in life turned into dreams and opportunities that he never dreamed of as a child far away from his family in a foreign country, Czechoslovakia, and he did not even know the language!
“The first year, I did not go to school. Afterwards, I was placed in a Czech school. Instead of putting me in first grade, they put me in the fourth grade of grammar school. All of this, and I could not even understand their language. Of course, math is the same in all languages. My knowledge in math and physics impressed a teacher so much so that he encouraged me to study nuclear physics. A lot of people wanted to study this after the war and so the trip towards a dream began…I did post-graduate work and in 1964 I went to Chicago where I met my two brothers. I started looking for work and at that time there was a demand for people with my education and so I was hired eventually. In other words, I was in the right place at the right time. Then we made three tools for the moon on three spaceships in order to learn about the chemical properties on the moon…
Pioneering Research on the Moon
Gradually, this Greek boy who went through a lot in life went back to the place wherehe first observed the stars and planets. “In the beginning we, as a group, were preparing the unmanned missions to the moon. It was new, pioneering work and required skills in nuclear physics. At that time, everything concerning space was new, and the competition between Russia and America helped attract more economic resources to the area of research. In the beginning we did not know how to reach the moon and astringofspaceships would hit the surface of the moon so that we could see their position. Out of the nine spaceships sent, only three landed on the surface of the moon. Through later developments we managed a smooth landing so as to avoid a disaster and naturally manned missions, such as Apollo 1969, followed. When we were given specimens from the moon, we realized with the help of tools that wehad ”predicted” the chemical properties long before we had sent the spaceships inti space. This made us feel very proud,” emphasizedMrEconomou.
In 1997 Thanasis Economou was director of an important science group in NASA which helped make a unique tool that was very helpful for exploration on Mars. He says, analytically: “The ALPHA PROTON X-RAY SPEKTROMETER is a machine that can smell the soil and rocks on Mars. For several years we worked with the group in Chicago for NASA and added the style with the rays. That way we were able to get more precise and complete information about the properties of both the moon and Mars… I made this particular tool as director of the group and the tool was used in 1997, about twenty years after NASA’s last mission to Mars.
The spaceship with this machine on a robot landed on Mars, and then we were able to get information on Mars. We were able to control it from our NASA base. We directed it to particular rocks so that it could send us an analysis of those rocks. We continued our missions and in 2004 we sent two more robots. We must understand that all the missions to Mars last about two and a half years. The spaceships need from seven to nine months to get to Mars and another nine months to get back to earth. One year is required for the orbit between Earth andMars to become synchronized. However, it takes us just three days for a spaceship to get to the moon and another three to get back. These tools are designed to last three months and it is already in its twelfth year of functioning. One of the tools we launched in 2004, the Opportunity, is workingintensely and only certain tools have broken down from a “natural death.” It was designed to travel 600 meters in total and it has travelled 42 kilometers and continues to do so…”
We asked when human beings will be able to set foot on Mars, and he answered with absolute scientific honesty: “Technology has to develop further. We need two and a half years to complete a mission. NASA studies manned missions, and the amount of fuel, food, water andoxygen needed.NASA is trying to figure out ways of getting manufacturing technologies, fuel and more so that a spaceship can go to Mars and return to Earth earlier. This is expected to happen around 2035-40.”
Before NASA makes a decision about a space mission, they get al the scientific tools ready in order to be ready for the proper moment. At the age of 79, Mr Economou is always ready to offer his services for a space to Mars. He was asked to provide a science patent, which was made twenty years ago, and to help in the research on the particular planet.”My age plays no role. The curiosity of human beings and scientists never stops. If one can make contributions, then why not? The love of progress and science gives one the strength and courage to start something new.” He emphasizes that a lot of rocks on Mars were given Greek names, such as “Thessaloniki,” “Kalambaka,” “Kalavrita,” “Ziakios and more.” We did this because while the robots are travelling we wan to understand what we are talking about. That stays there forever. This started in October of 2005 during our National Holiday when I asked for it and they accepted it. Afterwards, we gave names from mythology and from Greek islands.”
Since 2007, Mr Economou has been trying to create an Educational Astronomy Park in Orliaka,Yrevenon, his home town. He was born in Ziaka, which is “hugged” by the mountain, the Orliaka. In the beginning I was naïve that the project would be finished within two years, but Greek bureaucracy got in the way. This is an obstacle for many people. After nine years we had progress with the help of the precinct of western Macedonia, which was willing to help us make the park a reality. I met my colleague,MrSeiradakis, at the precinct and at the presidency of Aristotle University to discuss the park. This time I am as optimistic as ever,” he says with a smile on his lips.
An Observatory Beautifies the Soul of a Child
His childhood experiences from Orliaka led to a dream of making this observatory a very important part of our planet. Light pollution on this mountain is slight and the children of the region will be able to see stars with modern telescopes, discover things and dream….They will learn to love astronomy, science and research and become useful citizens,” says Thanasis Economou and he adds:
“There are many children who have no idea about all of the above… For example, while living in Los Alamos, the heart of theAmerican military industry, I took my children one night and we went to the edge of a forest. You cannot imagine their surprise when they faced the sky and the stars. Every child who has this experience feels something new and nice andafterwards they get the “virus” of research and discovery of new things. The souls of our children become beautiful this way.”
The interview with the 79-year-old Greek scientist,who has a great zest for living, has finished with one of his goals. A mission to Venus has been scheduled for 2025. Colleagues from NASA, including Mr. Economou and Russian astrophysicists, will be part of the mission which will be difficult since the temperature on Venus is 500 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is 100 times thicker than on Earth.
Mr. Economou, together with Ioannis Seiradakis,analyze unique phenomena with Stelios Moschoulas.