It was almost surreal to walk into the lab on a slice of sun-drenched farmland one lazy Guanacaste afternoon to find Franklin Chang sitting there in his office.
After all, the astronaut has become a rare form of Costa Rican celebrity, managing to be everywhere at once in recent months – he even had time to flash his pearly whites and bicep in an ad for temporary tattoos (the profits go to preserve wildlife on the OsaPeninsula).
In his sterile lab, about the only decoration is a poster that reads “en route to conquest.” But hearing him speak, it is clear that the first Latin American to enter space isn’t your typical conquistador.
He’s a conservationist as much as he is an explorer, concerned with the quality of life in his developing country as much as with stepping out into the final frontier.
Born in San José, Chang holds a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he first pondered the potential of plasma technology.
Since retiring from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2005, he started his company and has been more visible in Costa Rican politics, serving on the Council of Notables to evaluate the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) in 2005 (TT, April 29, 2005), and leading the team that created the Half-Century Plan for science education and research support, presented last year (TT, April 21, 2006).
Over coffee, The Tico Times sat down with the newfound entrepreneur and astronaut in his Ad Astra lab in Liberia, capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, to discuss the fate of the Earth, temporary tattoos and travel to Mars and beyond. Excerpts:
TT: If we’re headed to Mars, does that reduce the need for conservation on Earth?
FC: Earth will eventually become like humanity’s national park – the ultimate way we will preserve our history, traditions and biodiversity. With all 10 billion humans who are going to be living on Earth by 2050, we’re going to be hard pressed to fit. It’s going to be more difficult to grow beyond that point, so humanity will stop growing, and we know that in any biological system, when you stop growing you essentially start to decay, you turn into a decaying society, which is not what we want to happen. We either do that or we have to find a place to grow into.
That doesn’t mean we’re going to dump Earth like an old shoe. We want to be able to move into other places so Earth is preserved and protected as a place for humanity’s return.
Where will we go after Mars?
There’s a whole universe out there. If you really want to dream big, we’re looking at a galaxy, where you have billions of suns, many of them with planets that could have life. That multiplies possibilities in an infinite way…
Tell me more about your plan to use plasma to disintegrate toxic waste.
Plasma is anything that is very hot, like the Sun for example. The temperatures are so high that the Sun has no chemistry. That is, atoms of the gases in the Sun don’t combine to form compounds because temperatures are so high that the chemical bonds break. So the Sun has only pure elements like helium, hydrogen.
Take a piece of plastic and heat it to a temperature of 10,000 degrees and higher, and it would not be a plastic anymore, it would be a soup of carbons, hydrogen, maybe a little bit of oxygen, nitrogen. And those individual pieces are not harmful. Hospital waste, a tremendous hazard for the environment, can be transformed into useful products, like hydrogen.We are waiting to receive the green light from a number of (Costa Rican) hospitals we’ve approached so we can have access to all their waste and make the project cost-effective and profitable … but none of this is going to happen until there’s a willingness to pay for waste.
When you produce waste, somebody picks it up and takes it away.Most people pay very little, almost nothing for that. The price of waste today is subsidized by our environment. You take garbage and dump it in the river, the river’s paying, the Earth’s paying.
If we end up inhabiting space, will we trash it like some say we have Earth?
No, I think humans are basically good. There are some bad guys out there. We are not perfect and by growing we are affecting space, but we are already in space. It’s just going to be more of the same issues when we go to Mars…