It took about 18 months for the Hellenic Space Agency to be officially launched. It took only six weeks for it to undergo its first crisis. On Wednesday, the head of the newly established organisation, acclaimed astrophysicist Stamatios ‘Tom’ Krimigis resigned from his position, stating political interference as reason.
Hailed by NASA as a “Space Exploration Pioneer”, Tom Krimigis is Head Emeritus of the Space Department Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in the US, whose storied professional career has closely paralleled American space exploration. His presence at the helm of the organisation was hailed as a significant step forward for Greek science in general – as well as an example of the overall aspirations of the Agency.
In his resignation letter, Krimigis accuses Telecommunications Minister Nikos Pappas, of decisions that effectively annulled the HSA’s entire purpose and made it prone to political subservience, at the expense of meritocracy. He also reckoned that there is “an effort to manipulate HSA toward specific goals.”
The launch of a national space agency was hailed as a way to showcase the excellence of Greek scientists (more often than not struggling with adverse conditions, limited resources and lack of funding), but also as a way to attract targeted investment and spark a reversal of the ‘brain-drain’ phenomenon. The Hellenic Space Agency is the latest step in a journey that started in 1955, with the establishment of the Ionospheric Institute – subsequently renamed Institute for Space Applications and Remote Sensing. The country has a satellite program since 2001 and is part of the European Space Agency for almost 15 years, which explains the optimism around the new Agency.
All this was put to rest this week; the resignation of Krimigis was followed by that of the HSA managing director, Konstantinos Pilaftsis, while this turn of events sparked a public debate in Greece. In his letter Krimigis specifically targets the General Secretary of Communications and Post, Vasilis Maglaras, “who has undertaken […] the role of ‘Space Czar’ in Greece, despite having no knowledge nor experience in the field,” describing conditions that undermine what he presents as indispensable values: evaluation, meritocracy and excellence.
The last word is the opposition’s unofficial slogan, in its attacks to the Tsipras government’s practices, and soon the backlash of Krimigis’ resignation led to yet another round of political debate. Nea Dimokratia took on to attack the government for its choice of Krimigis’ replacement, Christodoulos Protopapas. An experienced electrical engineer with a long career in telecomunications and Satellite systems, he’s been active in the Hellas Sat programs of Greece and Cyprus and up to recently, he’s been at the helm of the European Satellite Operators Association. But Protopapas is a controversial figure; he was famously the person who famously – or infamously – bent Cyprus’ legislation to bring Internet to the country in 1995, in his capacity as manager of the Cypriot Archdiocese’s media group and he’s been under a lot of criticism for nationalistic views he expresses through social media, such as:
“When we [the Greeks] were building temples and wrote tragedies and comedies you [Europeans] lived in the mud, ate raw meat, were unbathed and spoke in inarticulate grunts.”