An insightful interview with none other than the renowned astronaut and inventor, Franklin Chang Diaz. He is best known for his work with the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine and for being a veteran of multiple space missions. In the interview, we delve into Franklin’s passion for the use of hydrogen as a fuel source and his vision for the future of space exploration.
We also discuss his role in the establishment of the Costa Rica Space Agency (AEXA) and his involvement in NASA’s Artemis program. Get ready to be inspired by Franklin’s passion and drive as he shares his knowledge and experience in this must-read interview!
Please tell us about Ad Astra Rocket’s participation with the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy?
The International Partnership of Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy, or IPHE for short, is an international partnership of 21 nations and the European Commission that promotes, educates, and shares best practices and lessons-learned in the implementation of a hydrogen economy. Costa Rica officially joined the IPHE in 2019 and Ad Astra Rocket Company brokered this participation. In December of 2022, Costa Rica hosted the 38th meeting of the IPHE Steering Committee in the cities of San José and Liberia.
What is the latest with Ad Astra Rocket’s hydrogen work in Costa Rica and elsewhere?
For more than a decade, Ad Astra has demonstrated how green hydrogen can be an important ingredient in Costa Rica’s decarbonization roadmap, and today, the company maintains and operates Latin America’s only fully integrated green hydrogen transportation ecosystem, including a fuel cell electric urban bus and the region’s first fleet of fuel cell electric sedans.
Ad Astra is now moving to expand this pilot ecosystem into a 1 MW, 500 kg/day, commercial-scale green-hydrogen infrastructure, capable of supporting a fleet of 20 heavy-duty fuel cell electric trucks serving the logistics market in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste region.
Can you please update us on progress with VASIMR?
The VASIMR® engine has seen major progress in the last 3 years, breaking a world record in 2021 for longest steady-state plasma rocket firing (88 hours at 80 kW) with elements of the engine at technology readiness level (TRL) 5. In 2023, our team will be completing additional improvements to the engine and tests to enable operation at 100 kW.
When complete, these tests will position the team to enter the design and manufacturing phases of our first spaceflight prototype, the VF-150™. The speed of progress now is heavily dependent on funding. While the most difficult part of our development is behind us, the most expensive remains in front. Ad Astra is pursuing both private and government sources for these funds.
What do you think about the future of space tourism?
Space is now a place of business where technologies meet addressable markets. There is a growing market for space tourism and the technology for accessing space with humans is now sufficiently mature. Space tourism may help further reduce cost, enabling space to be further democratized. This is a good outcome as space should not be the realm of only a few select nations or groups, but a place for all.
Our goal at Ad Astra is to produce high-quality, high-power electric rocket engines for clients worldwide, supporting a whole array of jobs that need to be done in space in an economically sustainable way.
Our engine can drastically reduce transportation costs on logistics missions and enable others, such as orbital debris cleanup, that remain prohibitive from a transportation economics standpoint. We are interested in partnerships. As engine builders we rely on others to complete the integrated spacecraft. Space tourism will require a robust and reliable supply chain and we intend to provide the propulsion element to support that requirement.
What are your thoughts about the Artemis program and one day sending astronauts to Mars?
We are going back to the Moon more in a spirit of collaboration than of confrontation. This is a good thing. Also, this time, the private sector is a partner, and many other countries are getting in the game, some in partnerships, others on their own.
There is an embryonic “gold rush” in the making for anticipated “space resources,” one of them probably water and, though the mix of players is somewhat different this time around, national pride remains an ingredient in the chemistry of space.
A permanent human presence on the Moon will require a sustainable Earth-Moon commercial logistics infrastructure and At Ad Astra looks to supply the high-power solar-electric (maybe nuclear-electric too) engines that will power the space trucks needed for that infrastructure. At Ad Astra, we also see the Moon as an ideal testing location for the multi-megawatt nuclear-electric VASIMR® engines that will enable fast human missions to Mars. Building such vacuum test facilities on Earth would be expensive and unnecessary.
There is a lot of homework to be done before we can go to Mars, and we must not delay completing those tasks. Developing the Moon infrastructure is one of them, and Artemis is a step in that direction. Developing high-power nuclear electric rockets is another.
In its 2023 budget for NASA, the US Congress appropriated $15 million to “begin a systematic approach to Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP).” While a small commitment, I am encouraged that we are finally taking some concrete initial steps to get us to an eventual human Mars landing.
What are your thoughts on the development of the Costa Rica Space Agency?
Fortunately, the Costa Rica Space Agency was approved by Congress and signed into law. The Agency’s board of directors has been created and held its first formal meeting last year. The next step is for the board to name a CEO, give her or him a small operating budget to develop a strategic plan.
These are simple tasks that should be completed without delay. The CR Space Agency does not need to be a large entity; at first, a small, strategic office is all that is required to enable Costa Rica to be “invited to the table” and look for opportunities in a space market Citibank predicts will reach $1 Trillion by 2040.
Costa Rica certainly has the “chops” to do this. Already the country has a strong, active, and well-organized aerospace cluster with participation on the board of the Space Agency. In April 2021, in the middle of a pandemic, Ad Astra Rocket Company, Costa Rica and LeoLabs Inc. of Menlo Park, California, inaugurated the world’s most advanced space radar.
The facility, located on a 6-acre lot near the City of Belen, Guanacaste is the only one of its kind in Latin America and part of LeoLabs’ global space tracking network, providing situational awareness on space debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) to commercial and government users worldwide.
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