DR. THANASIS ECONOMOU
University of Chicago and NASA Senior Planetary Scientist
Dr. Thanasis Economou was born in Ziaka, Grevena, a small village in Northwestern Greece, where he spent the first years of his life during the turbulent and difficult period of World War II and the civil war in Greece. Because of these reasons, he started his schooling at the age of 11 but later he managed to study nuclear physics at Charles University in Prague from where he received graduate and postgraduate degrees in 1964.
In 1964, after many difficulties and efforts, he moved with his entire family to Chicago in the United States, where two of his brothers were living. There, he was immediately accepted at the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research of the University of Chicago, where he became a member of a group that NASA had just selected to develop new techniques and build sophisticated instruments for space exploration. As early as in the middle ’60s, his group contributed to NASA’s early mission successes to the Moon (1966-1968) with their scientific instruments onboard the three
Surveyor spacecrafts that landed on the surface of the moon in preparation for the first astronauts to set their foot on the Moon with the Apollo program (1969-1973). For these contributions Dr. Economou was honored with NASA awards.
During the period of 1970-85 his group collaborated with many research centers in the US investigating numerous problems in the basic physics using the high energy accelerators in Los Alamos, Argonne, Fermilab and Sandia National Laboratories. His group also performed one of the most difficult Double Beta Decay Experiment that indicated for the first time that the neutrino particles can possess masses.
In 1986, Dr. Economou, who speaks the Russian language very well, started to collaborate with the Space Research Institute of the Soviet Union in Moscow on the programs to explore the planet Mars. Three of his instruments flew on the Soviet and Russian spacecraft in 1988 and in 1996 however, but unfortunately none of them returned any scientific data because, in both cases, the Russian spacecrafts failed the missions before reaching their destination.
Dr. Economou has been building instruments for interplanetary spacecraft since the mid-1960s. He has developed tools and techniques that enabled several of NASA’s famous missions to be carried out successfully, such as the Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer that successfully performed the first chemical analysis of Martian rocks aboard the Mars Pathfinder rover in 1997 and cosmic dust instruments that flew on several other NASA missions to comets, asteroids and outer solar system planets.
For 45 years now his name is linked with most of NASA’s 50 year history of lunar and planetary exploration. He is now a Senior Scientist at the Enrico Fermi Institute of the University of Chicago. He is the author of more than 200 publications and has received many prestigious awards: the NASA award for the APXS on Surveyor and the Pathfinder Mission, the National Air and Space Museum 1998 Achievement Trophy for the Pathfinder Team, the Group award for Sojourner rover development, the NASA Group and individual awards for Mars Rover mission Spirit and Opportunity and the NASA award for the STARDUST mission. In 2007 he was also awarded an honorary Doctorate Degree from the Technological Educational Institution (TEI) of Western Macedonia, Greece.
Currently he is associated with three of NASA’s robotic missions carrying his instruments: the Mars Exploration Rovers, that for almost 6 years Spirit and Opportunity operate successfully on the surface of Mars, the Cassini mission that for more than 5 years explores the satellites of Saturn and its rings and the Stardust-NExT mission to rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1 in February 2011.
With the support of the European Union and the Greek Government, Dr. Economou has started a project to build an observatory in the mountains of Grevena, Greece that will use state of the art educational and research telescopes.
Although Dr. Economou has seen plenty images from most of our solar system, he considers our white-blue planet Earth to be the most beautiful place in the entire Universe and encourages all of us to do everything possible to preserve it for the future generations.