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Astronaut delivers motor mock-up

July 6, 2012

From the print edition

Last Friday, Costa Rican astronaut turned space entrepreneur Franklin Chang landed at Liberia’s Daniel Oduber International Airport in a NASA airplane. 

The flight was for delivery of a mock-up model of a two-rocket plasma space motor to the Costa Rican subsidiary of Chang’s research corporation, Ad Astra Rocket Company. 

Known by the acronym VASIMR – for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket – the actual motor is being developed to power pure space vehicles operating outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The motor is revolutionary, developing thrust on the basis of expelling super-hot plasma gas, as opposed to traditional chemical rockets that use combustion of explosive fuels combined with liquid oxygen. 

Chang delivered the life-size VASIMR motor model to the Liberia, Guanacaste, subsidiary of his Houston-based U.S. company. 

Ad Astra Costa Rica houses in its Liberia laboratory-warehouse the also life-sized model of a scaffold, for attachment of the VASIMR engine to the International Space Station (ISS). Built in Costa Rica with cooperation from the Cartago Technological Institute, the scaffold and VASIMR motor unit will be the model for a structure to be boosted into orbit by conventional chemical rockets.

Once in space, the scaffold and VASIMR engine unit will be attached to the underside of the ISS. The first real-life application of the motor will be to thrust the ISS upward, to slightly adjust its orbit. This first in-space trial is projected for 2015.

Franklin Chang, 62, is in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Since his technical specialty – rocket physics – is among the most widely applicable skills for a space program, Chang is tied for most missions to space – seven, all on space shuttles – and has accumulated more than 1,600 hours in space. 

Chang is the first naturalized U.S. citizen ever to become an astronaut. Costa Rica thinks so highly of him that the Costa Rican citizenship law was amended to retain him as a national. Prior to the amendment, Costa Ricans who became citizens of other countries could lose their Costa Rican nationality. 

NASA has basically discontinued its traditional space program with the retirement of the space shuttles. NASA’s strategy going forward is to leave commercial space activity, now a $300 billion a year business, to the private sector, and to concentrate its direct funding on development of breakthrough technologies. VASIMR easily qualifies for this, and Chang’s Ad Astra Rocket Company is funded by a combination of NASA grants and private venture capital. 

Ad Astra Costa Rica embodies Chang’s personal effort to incorporate his native country into the space industry. The emphasis of the company is participation, where appropriate, in the VASIMR development and testing program, and the development and training of young Costa Ricans as possible future astronauts. 

The Tico Times is fascinated by the Ad Astra Liberia story, which makes Costa Rica the only Latin American country with a space program. In coming weeks, look for our series on this most unlikely – yet promising – scientific and commercial venture, right here in the plains of the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

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