The northwestern province of Guanacaste is known for its beautiful beaches and popular resorts, sugarcane farming and cattle ranching, and the tree that shares its name. But soon it may also be known as home of the world’s first plasma rocket.
While presidential candidates and highlevel bureaucrats talk big about developing science and technology here, beloved U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang is making the talk a reality.
“I went to the United States almost 40 years ago and achieved a dream, but I have always wanted to bring a peace of that dream home to Costa Rica,” Chang told The Tico Times last week after announcing he will open a branch of his Ad Astra Rocket Company in Liberia, Guanacaste’s capital.
Chang, who retired last year from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has been working since 1979 on a plasma rocket to cut travel time to Mars in half. The project has made its way though prestigious U.S. laboratories at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) and the JohnsonSpaceCenter, and will now make a move to the EARTHUniversity’s new Liberia campus, Daniel Oduber – La Flor.
Chang’s laboratory, expected to open July 1, will be the inaugural project at the campus – the founding of which was announced at the same time as the laboratory – and EARTH officials hope it is emblematic of what is to come.
The campus is the result of a donation of 1,500 hectares of land from the estate of former President Daniel Oduber Quirós (1974-1978). It will be dedicated to generating innovative ideas for social and sustainable development, environmental protection and socially responsible business.
Rather than serving primarily as a fouryear institution for students, the campus will instead be a convergence point for scientists, business leaders and professionals from various sectors to propose solutions to real problems, particularly concerning water management, alternative energy and sustainable agriculture, explained Carlos Hernández, director of the new campus.
How does a plasma rocket to Mars fit into this?
“This is what the space program is about. It looks at space, but it also looks at earth, it has always been like that. The same will happen in Costa Rica,” Chang said.
The Chang lab will essentially be providing technologies to Ad Astra Rocket Company in the United States, of which Chang is president. An associated company, Astra Rocket Company, Costa Rica, has been set up here.
“This rocket has various components, and not all will be developed in the United States because we have many things to do. We want to take a few of the problems that haven’t been solved yet and solve them here in Costa Rica,” explained Chang, who will gradually become a more permanent resident of his native land.
In this process, scientists here will be working on technologies with applications in space, but uses on earth. This includes the generation of energy through solar panel technology and plasma technology, which is used in the destruction of toxic wastes, Chang explained.
“This waste is an energy source as well, because it is a source of hydrogen and therefore produces electricity,” he continued.
Plasma can also be used in medical processes and in related technologies such as superconductivity, to transport electricity.
“(Beyond the rocket), these technologies are to a certain point blind. They aren’t designated to a specific end, but rather for the market to present itself,” Chang said.
The idea is that the La Flor campus will also play host to businesses that could use these technologies, many of which may not even yet exist because the technology is so cutting-edge.
“Our goal is that in this technology center, companies will work together so that one lends services to the other, the walls are somewhat permeable and information flows,” Hernández said. “We want to take advantage of the energy produced when great minds get together.”
Plasma is just one aspect, he added. They are hoping to attract scientists in a variety of fields, from both Costa Rica and abroad.
“This country has extraordinary potential,” Chang said.
Two-thirds of the campus will be dedicated to agriculture in order to develop what Hernández called “value-added” agricultural products that will allow Costa Rica to compete internationally. The campus will also include a community education component in order to transfer the ideas developed on campus to people who can put them to use.
Similar studies take place at EARTHUniversity’s original campus on the Caribbean slope, but the La Flor campus will “kick it up a notch,” Hernández said.
The precise plan for La Flor is still in the works. EARTH officials are only now contracting companies to write a master plan.
“But sometimes opportunities present themselves, and it’s not necessarily when master plans are ready,” Hernández said in reference to Chang’s lab. “You have to take advantage of them.”