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The Greek NASA Scientist Who Helped Save the Apollo 13 Crew

Kontaratos NASA Apollo 13
Mission Control celebrates the successful splashdown. Public Domain

Anthony Kontaratos was truly one of the unsung heroes in the history of NASA, as he was not only the engineer responsible for helping save the crew of the Apollo 13 mission, but also one of the scientists who placed the first man on the moon.

Kontaratos received NASA’s Apollo Achievement Award in 1969, which it states was given for his “Dedicated service to the nation as a member of the team which first landed man on the Moon.”

But this was only one of the many awards the brilliant engineer received during his career.

Born in Athens in 1933, with family origins from Thera on Santorini, Kontaratos studied at the National Technical University of Athens, from which he received his PhD. He then moved to the United States to do research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.

The scientist’s work made him a member of the small group of Wernher von Braun’s close associates, who were responsible for designing and implementing the Apollo program to send humans to the moon.

Kontaratos moves to NASA

Kontaratos was head of a team of 16 experts from various disciplines – from biophysicists and psychologists to mathematicians and chemists – who served as NASA’s consultants on the health and safety problems of the Apollo astronauts and the interplanetary manned flights von Braun was envisioning.

Kontaratos NASA Apollo13
Anthony Kontaratos

From 1965 to 1976 he was Chief of Space Applications and Space Physiology at Bellcomm, Inc., the exclusive Technical Advisor to NASA’s Manned Flight Directorate.

Kontaratos’ contribution was pivotal in one of the most dramatic moments of the Apollo program, more specifically in the Apollo 13 mission.

Explosion in the main spaceship

As the crew was heading to the Moon for yet another attempt to explore our natural satellite, an explosion destroyed the main spaceship and the three astronauts were forced to take refuge aboard its tiny capsule, which was designed to accommodate just two men.

The astronauts could easily have died because there was a problem with the capsule’s carbon dioxide capture system, and the control center had to come up with a solution on the spot.

Kontaratos came to the rescue with the unorthodox, but ultimately successful, idea of placing a cube inside a cylinder, which saved the day — and the lives of the three spacemen.

In fact, the producers asked Dr. Kontaratos to play himself in the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton portraying the three astronauts — and he did.

The NASA scientist received a Special Award Certificate for “Contributions to Manned Space Flight,” by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, or AT& T, in 1971.

Kontaratos NASA
The crew on board the USS Iwo Jima following splashdown. Public Domain

When Dr. Kontaratos decided to give up his brilliant career in the US and return to Greece in 1976, NASA bestowed a rare farewell gift on him, the only thing befitting his great contributions to the space program.

Kontaratos returns to Greece

The US space agency proposed naming a ridge on the Moon “Dorsum Kontaratos,” after the beloved scientist. Kontaratos refused, however, and asked instead that the lunar ridge be called “Dorsum Thera,” after his homeland, perhaps because the morphology of the lunar terrain reminded him of Santorini.

In 1976, Kontaratos was elected Regular Professor of Management at Patras Technical University, where he worked until 1984. Between 1979 and 1982 he also served as an Advisor to the National Research Foundation.

Between 1985 and 1990, he served as Vice President of Operational Strategy for Biotech Research Laboratories in the US and also worked as a professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Management.

In 1991, Kontaratos returned again to Greece, where he was appointed Chairman of the Board of Evangelismos Hospital. In October of 1992, he was elected Chief Executive Officer at the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center, where he served until February of 1997.

In March 1997, Kontaratos was appointed General Manager of SA Limited Company for Research and Patent Management, which manages the innovative biological filter for cigarettes.

In April of 1999, he was appointed General Manager of Henry Dunant Hospital, where he worked until 2000. He was named President of Golden Filter in 2002, and in 2008 was again named as the Director of Evangelismos Hospital.

Dr. Anthony Kontaratos passed away in 2009. Many believe that the brilliant Greek scientist never truly received the recognition that he so richly deserved in the land of his birth.

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