U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and famed Costa Rican-U.S. astronaut Franklin Chang became friends in space – and were reunited recently at Chang’s new plasma lab in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
Nelson, a former astronaut and current member of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, used the visit to catch up on Chang’s efforts to create a rocket fueled by plasma, or superheated gas, that would make space travel quicker and cheaper. Today’s liquid hydrogen- or oxygen-powered rockets take more than two years for a round trip to Mars, while the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) Chang envisions would take eight months or less (TT, July 21, 2006).
“Franklin Chang receives support from universities and private companies, but when the rocket is ready to fly, it should be part of NASA,” the Florida Democrat told the daily La Nación following his Feb. 18 tour, referring to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Chang, a 25-year NASA veteran, said U.S. support is key to the project’s success. “U.S. government support is important, though our company operates with private capital,” he said of his Ad Astra Rocket Company. “The activities we develop have an impact on the activity of the International Space Station, a program of the (U.S.) government, so it’s important that the government get involved in a positive manner.”
Chang opened the laboratory just outside of the provincial capital of Liberia last year, saying he hoped to develop a plasmapropelled rocket by 2007 and send rockets to the International Space Station in 2010-2011.
Nelson traveled on the Columbia shuttle as a mission specialist for six days in 1986, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy – a trip in which Chang also participated. Nelson is widely recognized as Congress’ NASA expert, the statement said.