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Who’s the next Franklin Chang?

Two Costa Rican high school students with the right stuff will be awarded scholarships to attend space school for two weeks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in the United States, in August 2012. 

There, students will work in multicultural teams to plan a mission to Mars while attending physics, biology and chemistry classes and meeting with mentors and advisers. Zero gravity, propulsion systems and space law are just some of the subjects they will study.

This is the second consecutive year that Strategy XXI Century, BAC San José, United Airlines and the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center have sponsored the scholarships. Currently, Costa Rica is the only Central American country that offers this program. 

“It is an honor to work with this type of pilot program that encourages outstanding students to meet their goals and bring them closer to the aerospace industry,” said Costa Rican astronaut and physicist Franklin Chang, 61, who is president of Strategy XXI Century.

Chang, a veteran of seven NASA space flights, invented the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket and in 2005 founded Ad Astra Rocket Company, a Houston-based company with a lab in Liberia, the capital of Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste province. 

Chang said the company is developing a new type of propulsion system that will reduce the cost of transporting objects such as satellites in space. 

 He believes the scholarship program will benefit Costa Rica by producing more prepared professionals by the year 2050.

Securing one of the two scholarships involves a competitive selection process. To apply, students must have a good command of the English language, score 90 or higher in physics, math and chemistry in school, submit references and write an essay of intent in English. After a review process, finalists will undergo an interview process in English and an English exam. From there, two scholarship recipients will be chosen.  

From the approximately 50 candidates who applied last year, Marco Acuña,18, of the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba, and Diego Bolaños, 17, of Heredia, north of San José, were awarded the scholarships and represented Costa Rica. The pair interacted with astronauts, scientists and cosmonauts at the Johnson Space Center. 

“Space school is a unique experience, and I feel proud to have been able to participate,” said Bolaños. “We did cool stuff and also got to wear space suits.” 

The students planned an exploration mission to Mars. Acuña said they had to investigate each issue and complication involved in the mission and figure out how to tackle it as a group. 

Both teenagers successfully completed their missions.

The two currently attend the Costa Rica Institute of Technology. Bolaños studies industrial engineering and hopes to one day help  Chang with his plasma projects. Acuña studies biotechnology and hopes to specialize in the botanical field and experiment with plant compounds to prevent cancer.

Strategy XXI Century Executive Director Emmanuel Hess expects more candidates will apply this year since Bolaños and Acuña returned with a positive experience, which they have shared with friends and fellow students in addition to posting about it on social networking sites. 

“It not only benefits the kids who attend space school, but it also benefits the entire country of Costa Rica,” said Hess.

Although NASA’s space shuttle program is grounded, Chang thinks it is an interesting time for the future of space.

“This is the time when space will be truly open to the general public. Space now becomes a place of business, not a place of national presence and patriotic stances,” Chang said. “Space will be a place where you go to do something useful, something important for the rest of humanity. … The private sector is a completely new element that has been brought into the mix and is creating an explosion of interest.”

And maybe one day in the future, Chang said, Ad Astra will be able to transport people. But don’t start planning that vacation to Mars just yet.

Registration for the scholarships is open through Dec. 15. For information, see


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