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Ticos Cleaning Up the Cosmos

Franklin Chang is the kind of person who inspires us to dare to dream, and to then set out to accomplish what we thought was impossible.

This has been the recurring storyline in the life of Chang, the first and only Costa Rican-born astronaut. From a modest upbringing in San José, to a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to the most voyages into outer space of any astronaut (seven), Chang continues to accomplish seemingly impossible missions.

And he’s not nearly done yet.

In 2005, Chang started the Ad Astra Rocket Company in Houston, Texas to build his creation the VASIMR, or “variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket.” Instead of relying on voluminous amounts of fuel to launch into and travel through space, the rocket is powered by plasma, formed by heating argon gas to temperatures as hot as the sun’s. Plasma’s energy is so strong that, in addition to reducing fuel costs of space travel, it is expected to cut travel time to Mars to about 39 days – a trip that currently takes eight months.

But travel to Mars or “deep space missions,” as Chang describes them, is more the dessert course of the VASIMR project. The primary short-term objective of the plasma-fueled rocket is to reduce the number of dead, useless or inactive satellites orbiting in outer space. The VASIMR project, in essence, aims to bean outer space garbage detail.

Ad Astra Guanacaste, Costa Rica

“There are tens of thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth now, and many of the mare perfectly good satellites that can be restored to life by refueling them orby moving them to more useful orbits,” Chang said. “Some are completely dead and need to be moved out of the way. Those are the ones we refer to as ‘space junk.’ They constitute a danger to other satellites.”

According to Chang, satellites put into orbit by various national space programs, as well as by weather service companies, Global Positioning System (GPS) services, and television companies make up the bulk of space junk. He says these satellites are one-way missions, launched without plans to return them to Earth. After several years, the satellites die or run out of fuel, and they continue in orbit despite being inactive.

“Imagine if you were to drive all the cars on the highway and, when they ran out of gas,they just stay on the highway,” he said. “Pretty soon you have a highway full of cars and you have to find a way to go around them. Eventually someone is going to have to clean them up. That’s where we come in. We are sort of going to be a wrecker service.”

In recent years, two active satellites have collided with inactive ones. The first was a Chinese spacecraft that intentionally slammed into one of its own satellites to test the results. The debris from the accidents didn’t fall to Earth – it is hanging in the atmosphere, scattered across several orbits. In recent years, some agencies, including the United Nations, have begun regulating satellite activity and are considering issuing fines for space negligence, such as leaving excessive satellites in orbit or being at fault in a collision.

As emphasis on regulation of space clutter increases, Chang believes the availability of VASIMR-powered cleanup services will coincide with the peak of space agencies’ and private companies’ needs to reduce their space junk.

“This market is just beginning to surface, and several companies have expressed interest in our services,” Chang said. “Everything is driven by economics.These types of things are not cheap. The cost of launching a satellite, for example, is about $150 million to perhaps $200 million dollars. Some fraction of that would be what you need to be willing to pay to dispose of it. These numbers will have to be carefully studied when coming up with a rate.”

In addition to space cleanup, Chang says the VASIMR might also be able to offer services such as returning space stations to their proper orbits. For example,the International Space Station’s (ISS) orbit decays over time, bringing it closer to the Earth’s atmosphere. A joint research facility project of space agencies of the U.S., Canada, Russia,Europe and Japan,the ISS is the largest artificial satellite that has ever orbited Earth.

In contrast to VASIMR’s business venture, comprised mainly of space clean up services, deep space-missions, in particular voyages to Mars, are closer to the recreational side of Chang’s project.

“Sending people to Mars, well, we like the idea of that, but that is not the business side of the project,” Chang Diaz said. “That is more the romantic part that hopefully someday we will do, but, let’s start with the money-making ventures first.”

In economic terms, niche markets are those that address new demands for services or unmet needs. And, if you look in the White Pages under “intergalactic space cleanup,” the only listing found may soon be Ad Astra Rocket.

Costa Rica’s Aerospace Program

Chang’s accomplishments have made him a hero in his home country. For a man from a nation known mainly for its agricultural production, Chang’s seven voyages into outer space have served as an inspiration, and have piqued the nation’s and the current administration’s interest in a locally under-explored area: science.

President Laura Chinchilla opened her May inaugural speech with mention of Chang saying, “We will work fora more innovative, more intelligent, more enterprising Costa Rica with a new economy encouraged by biotechnology, organic agriculture, the audiovisual industry, and the aerospace and aviation industries.”

Thus far in her term,Chinchilla appears ready to follow through on her promise, announcing in July that Liberia, a city in the northwestern Guanacaste Province, will be the base for Costa Rica’s aerospace initiative. Liberia was selected primarily for its proximity to Ad Astra’s Costa Rican branch,located on the La Flor campus of EARTH University. There, in a small 2-story plant, a small team made up almost entirely of young Tico engineers manufactures 10 percent of the VASIMR (the remaining elements of the rocket are manufactured in Houston).

“The portion of university students studying science in Costa Rica is about 6 to 7 percent,” said Ronald Chang, Franklin’s brother and executive director of the Liberia branch of Ad Astra. “There is just not much of an interest in the sciences in this country … We hope that projects such as Ad Astra will encourage young Ticos to explore the world of science and aerospace.”

Since the Ad Astra plant in Liberia was built in 2006, the VASIMR project has received substantial financial support from large and small national private companies.

“I wasn’t expecting Costa Ricans to invest a lot of money in the project when it started,” Franklin Chang said. “But the support here has been extraordinary. I am very, very proud and very, very happy with the support of Costa Rica on this project.”

While Franklin Chang is pleased with the support for his project, he admits he’d like to see more experimental science in Costa Rica.

“Science in Costa Rica is too theoretical,” he said. “It needs to be more experimental and hands-on.”

Franklin Chang said that a common Costa Rican excuse for lackluster science programs is a lack of money to buy materials.

“You don’t need to buy equipment to experience science,” he said. “Just walk out the door. The entire planet is there for you. That should be the school laboratory. Just walk out the door.”

Hopefully the work of Chang,the most internationally and inter-galactically accomplished Costa Rican, will indeed inspire more students to walk out of the door into the laboratory of the world, which as Franklin Chang has proved, has almost no limitations.


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