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Tom Krimigis

Tom Krimigis, space scientist and keynote speaker at Lowell Observatory’s upcoming Science of Space Gala June 4


Last year’s New Horizons flyby of Pluto capped a 50-year span of time during which spacecraft explored all nine traditional planets. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and support staff participated in these efforts, but only one person—Stamatios (Tom) Krimigis— played a role in missions to every one of those planets. Now, Krimigis is coming to Flagstaff as the keynote speaker for Lowell Observatory’s 5th annual fundraising gala, “The Science of Space”. This event takes place on June 4 at the High Country Conference Center.

Krimigis comes with an impressive pedigree, having worked under the legendary James Van Allen, who in 1958 had been principal investigator on America’s first satellite, Explorer 1. Van Allen was a space scientist and professor of physics at the University of Iowa. A few years after the Explorer 1 effort, he was helping plan a mission to Mars and asked one of his students, Krimigis, if he would like to serve as a co-investigator on the mission. Krimigis eagerly accepted and worked with Van Allen on designing an instrument to fly on a spacecraft that would search for radiation zones around Mars.

That mission was Mariner 4 and it arrived at Mars on July 14, 1965, kicking off Krimigis’s five-decade-long planetary exploration career. In 1968, he moved to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) and has worked there ever since, designing and building hardware to fly on space missions while serving as a principal staff member for most of that time.

Over the ensuing decades, Krimigis would help lead efforts to explore most of the major bodies in the solar system. In a recent interview, he said, “As luck would have it, after Mariner 4 I also did Mariner 5 that went to Venus, and then I was selected as principal investigator for Voyager, which went to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.” He worked on several dozen other missions, including Messenger (to study Mercury) and Explorer 33 (which orbited Earth while observing solar x-rays and other nearby phenomena).

Krimigis had to fight many battles—often relating to budget cuts—in support of these missions. He recalled that for the Voyager missions (involving two separate space probes), scientists wanted to take advantage of a favorable alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune and fly to all four. However, then-president Richard Nixon said the mission was too costly and demanded it be abridged to a four-year flight to only Jupiter and Saturn. Krimigis said, “We knew very well that Mr. Nixon would no longer be in office by the time the spacecraft reached those two planets, so during the design phase, our team of scientists and engineers made sure we had enough consumables aboard the spacecraft—fuel, power, and everything else—for an extended mission. As they say, the rest is history.” Just as his team hoped and planned for, government officials did later extend the mission to include flying to Uranus and Neptune.

By the late 1990s, Krimigis had participated on missions to an asteroid and every planet except one—Pluto. Not that Pluto hadn’t been considered; over about a 15-year period of time, several teams of scientists had developed plans to explore Pluto, but a combination of government budget cuts and politics snuffed out these early attempts. Finally, after reviewing the latest round of proposals to explore Pluto, NASA announced on November 29, 2001 that it had chosen the New Horizons mission to fly to Pluto. New Horizons was led by Alan Stern and would be managed by JHUAPL, under Krimigis’s leadership.

Krimigis, who may be rightfully called the godfather of planetary exploration, said, “After all those years, and exactly 50 years to the day after Mariner 4 flew by Mars, New Horizons arrived at Pluto. And with that we reached all nine planets.”

At Lowell’s Science of Space Gala, Krimigis will share some of the excitement—and intrigue—of planning and executing space missions with a program, “So Close and Yet so Far: 50 Years of Planetary Exploration”. Other activities for the evening will include a space expo featuring eight Lowell astronomers—including Director Jeff Hall—with posters explaining their research. Cocktails, dinner, and a live space auction will top off the evening. Some items up for bid include an evening of observing at Lowell’s Discovery Channel Telescope, a ride in “Big Red” (Percival Lowell’s 1911 Stevens-Duryea automobile) during Flagstaff’s Fourth of July parade, and an African safari trip. For information about attending or sponsoring The Science of Space Gala, contact Mica Gratton at or (928) 255-0229. The deadline for purchasing tickets is May 30.

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Kevin Schindler is the Lowell Observatory historian


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