ASTRONAUT Franklin Chang Díazhas not only reached the stars – he has alsoreached star status in Costa Rica. Here, hiscompatriots take national pride in theCosta Rican-born rocket-propulsion scientist,who became the first Latin Americanin the U.S. National Aeronautics and SpaceAdministration (NASA) and has loggedmore than 1,600 hours in space on sevenmissions.Though Chang, 55, has lived in theUnited States for more than 30 years andspends most of his time building a plasmarocket to cut travel time to Mars in half, hestill considers helping Costa Rica one ofhis most important missions.Leaders here seem to agree. Last weekthey tapped the rocket scientist’s brain foradvice on the country’s new Half-CenturyPlan for Science and Technology, as wellas the proposed Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States(TT, July 22).Earlier this month, Chang left NASA tocontinue his research as part of the privatesector, which some consider the future ofspace exploration because, while the risksare greater, so too are freedom and potentialsources of financing.Chang says he will continue the sameresearch he has been doing for more than 20years to create the Variable Specific ImpulseMagnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) Engine,which may eventually allow humans toexplore more distant parts of the solarsystem.The plasma rocket – a system usingradio waves that heat rocket fuel, in this casehydrogen, to super-hot temperatures – couldcut the travel time to Mars from eight or ninemonths to three or four months.Chang recently talked with The TicoTimes about Costa Rica, NASA and thefuture of space exploration.TT: In the wake of the HospitalCalderón Guardia fire (TT, July 15),President Abel Pacheco called CostaRica a poor country. Why should acountry described this way by its ownPresident be investing in science andtechnology?FC: If you take a young child in anindigenous Bribrí community in southeasternCosta Rica, that child is not going tohave the same chances as a child growingup in Germany or Japan. To me, that is notfair. Children all over the planet shouldhave the same level playing field… and thatis done through the development of scienceand technology and the opportunities theybring with them.What these kids do with their future isup to them, or their parents, but at leastthey would have an equal start. That iswhat I’m hoping we can achieve here (withthe Half-Century Plan).There are fundamental problems ininfrastructure and… certain basic thingsthat have to be part of a national agenda ofrecovering the values and capabilities thiscountry had 30-40 years ago, when thewhole vision of Costa Rica was new, fresh.We have been running on empty for awhile; we are in the fumes now; it is timeto refuel the tank.We have gotten used to things notworking. That is not acceptable.Beyond the Half-Century Plan, whatprojects are you working on here?We are working on a very interestinguse of plasma technology that has atremendous capability for processingwaste. There are techniques for transforminghighly toxic waste, as well as all kindsof waste, into useful products – constructionmaterials, metals, and most important,hydrogen.Hydrogen can be produced with anykind of waste, particularly waste that isrich in plastic because plastic is rich inhydrogen. That waste can be transformedessentially into hydrogen-rich gas, whichcan then be used to generate electricity.Plastic has a higher hydrogen capacity thanwhat it takes to process it, so you get a netgain of energy.Of course I want to start this projecthere in Costa Rica, but… it could be takenall over the world.How do you balance your dual citizenship?I feel more like a citizen of the planet.Pretty soon these distinctions and bordersbetween countries are going to be highlyirrelevant, in terms of communications andcommerce. Whatever we do in one countryis going to have a huge impact in anothercountry, so we have a responsibility to theentire planet.You are on the “council of notables”to study free trade with the UnitedStates. People have been talking aboutyou as a running mate for presidentialcandidate Oscar Arias, an offer you havedeclined. What is the role of scientists inpolitics?Scientists have to transcend politics.We are perfectly free to engage in politics,but the role of the scientific community inCosta Rica is to come up with a plan thattranscends political colors, something thatwill enable the country to project half acentury in the future.Is the public’s fascination with spacestill as alive as it once was?Fascination with space is mainly withchildren. As adults we are polluted by allthe realities of life and everything we haveto provide, but children have to learn todream and believe there is nothing theycannot try to do.You’d be surprised at the number ofcloset space buffs… they are embarrassedto think they are like children. That is toobad, because, in reality, being able todream about space is something that makeshumanity vibrant and energized.I always say that we as a human racebegan exploring space the day we chose towalk out of our cave, the day we said, ‘Iwant to go see what is out there – maybethere is food to be had, better climate, betterliving, maybe we would be better off.’Some people chose to go out, and somedidn’t. Those who did not, died. Of thosewho did, some died and some survived.I think exploration of space is doingnothing less than ensuring the survival ofthe human species.What is the role of the private sectorin space exploration?It is a fantastic role. Burt Rutanlaunched a human being into space (in aprivately funded venture in October 2004)and did it again one week later. This is anomen of what is coming – a virtual explosionof humanity into at least the spacebetween the earth and the moon, for manyreasons, like tourism… people who aregoing to pay $100,000-200,000 to take aride into space. It seems frivolous… but ifthat is a way to get humanity to go out, sobe it.We are probably going to find other,more important reasons, such as resourcesand overcoming some of our populationproblems on the planet. Maybe some daywhole communities will live on other planets…We will also move asteroids closer toearth, using them as resources for minerals,water, and metal. We will put our factorieson these asteroids; then we won’t have toworry about pollution because we will pollutethe asteroid… When we are finishedpolluting them we will send them to thesun and go get another.The earth will become a national parkto protect humanity’s heritage for thefuture. People will come here just for vacation,to enjoy the clean air.What impact do problems like therecent fuel gauge troubles on the latestDiscovery mission to the space station,and the 2003 Columbia shuttle tragedy,have on NASA’s image?NASA is a collection of visionaries anddreamers and people who want to makethis dream a reality, but it is difficult; spaceflight is hard. Every time you launch aspacecraft into space you have thousandsand thousands of little valves and sensors,and if they don’t work, you die.So you have to be extremely carefulabout what you do, because people’s livesare on the line. NASA is being extremelycareful. We cannot take any more chances.(The space station) will be completed.It may not be exactly the space station wehad in mind 20 years ago, but it is going tobe a functional space station and… thestepping-stone from which we will developa lot of these new technologies that willallow us to go farther.Will your plasma rocket be there?We hope to be there with a propulsion testplatform. The plasma rocket we aredeveloping today cannot be tested onEarth. The powerful one has to be in a vacuum,and building a vacuum to handlethese rockets is so expensive and so cumbersomethat it is better to test them inspace. The space station presents an ideallaboratory for testing advanced propulsion.How do you think the astronauts inthe space station were affected by thedelays?Astronauts are trained to be able toanticipate and deal with unforeseenpredicaments. They have shown they areable to find a way… which bodes very wellfor the future. When we go to Mars, it willtake half an hour for messages to get toearth. If we have a problem, we can’t say,“Houston, we have a problem,” becauseHouston isn’t going to hear until half anhour later. After that it will be another halfan hour before they tell us to stand by,which is what they usually tell us when wehave a problem. So we have to be completelyself-sufficient and autonomous.In 2010, NASA’s shuttles are to beretired. What next?Right now we are working on a systemcalled the Crew Exploration Vehicle. It isa sort of replacement for the shuttle, butnot entirely. The shuttle carries humansand cargo together in one ship. We havecome to realize… that it is much better tolaunch the cargo separately and thehumans in a little craft, because of safetyand reliability issues… That is going tostart most likely around that same time(2010), although there may be a bit of agap. In the meantime, we are going to continueto use the other launchers, like theRussian launcher. Other countries are gettinginto the act as well.
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