LIBERIA, Guanacaste – In what was probably the first ribbon-cutting ceremony in Costa Rica with potential to spark change not just locally, nationally and internationally, but also galaxy-wide, U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang inaugurated his new Ad Astra Rocket Lab here Saturday.
The ceremony marked the official start of a new phase in a research project that, according to Chang, has the potential to revolutionize space travel, providing new opportunities to Costa Rican business owners, students and scientists in the process. Among its goals: create a variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR), a concept Chang invented, and send it to Mars.
The inauguration of the lab – built during the past six months on the Daniel Oduber campus of EARTH University, a tropical agriculture research center whose Guanacaste campus is 10 kilometers outside the provincial capital of Liberia – combined elements of a family reunion, a Who’s Who of Costa Rican politics, and an international rocket science think tank.
Chang, the CEO of U.S.-based Ad Astra Rocket Company Costa Rica, and his brother Ronald, an engineer and the general manager of subsidiary Ad Astra Costa Rica, shared the stage with President Oscar Arias and their mother, María Eugenia Díaz de Chang. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Samuel C.C. Ting and Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Soviet space program, were among the scientists in the audience, from a wide range of countries and specialties including rocket propulsion, plasma technology and superconductors.
Area schoolchildren rounded out the audience, rubbing shoulders with Cabinet ministers and rocket scientists in what Ronald Chang said is the beginning of continued access to the lab for Costa Rica’s young people. All of the country’s students are welcome to visit the lab, where “constant tours” will be offered, he told the crowd – though “obviously, not all at the same time.”
“We’re not going to build a marble tower,” said Franklin Chang, who in 1980 became the first Latin American astronaut of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and went on to spend 1,600 hours in space on seven missions during his 25-year career there. “The design of the plant is done in such a way that you can see everything we’re doing.”
The 700-square-meter facility, which required an initial investment of $1 million, includes a workshop, offices and meeting space for conferences. On Monday, more than 35 experts on plasma – a fourth state of matter composed of superheated gas with temperatures similar to those inside the Sun – from all over the world met at the lab for a workshop on high-power electric propulsion, according to the daily La Nación.
An International Effort
The lab was built in only six months, but Chang’s efforts to build a plasma rocket have been under way since 1979, he told journalists after the inauguration ceremony. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas took on the project in 1993, and in 2005, Chang founded Ad Astra and began negotiating with NASA to transfer the project to his private enterprise. NASA granted Ad Astra a patent license for the technology in February.
Chang, 56, told The Tico Times last year he believes the private sector has “a fantastic role” to play in space exploration, and predicted “a virtual explosion of humanity into at least the space between the Earth and the moon” (TT, July 29, 2005).
The VASIMR rocket would make room for such an explosion by drastically reducing the cost and time of space voyages. It uses plasma produced and heated by radio waves, then contained by a magnetic field; plasma is too hot to be contained by conventional materials. According to Chang, because VASIMR uses much less fuel than chemical rockets used today, it would make travel millions of dollars cheaper, as well as faster.
Today’s rockets, powered by liquid hydrogen or oxygen, take more than two years to travel to Mars and back, while a VASIMR rocket – in theory – could make the round-trip journey in eight months or less.
The technology also offers significant savings over other plasma rocket technologies, Chang said of his competition, such as the Hall effect thruster. Because the VASIMR model uses Argon gas ($42/kg) compared to the Hall model’s Xenon gas ($2,120/kg), it would cost VASIMR only $517,000 to deliver 21 metric tons of cargo to the moon, compared to the Hall’s $54 million.
Ad Astra’s goals include developing a plasma-propelled rocket by 2007; sending rockets to the International Space Station in 2010-2011; building an “Ad Astra Lunar Tug” for transport between the Earth and moon by 2015; and eventually constructing a rocket that can send humans to Mars.
Chang told reporters he is confident he’ll raise the funds necessary to complete the project. So far, the company has received investments from Costa Rican companies including brokerage house Aldesa, Grupo Pampa, Solid Rental Car, Mar Robalo, Saret and Chang Díaz y Asociados, of which Ronald Chang is a founding partner.
José Zaglul, rector of EARTH, based in the Caribbean-slope town of Guápiles, called the opening “a historic moment for the continent” and said Chang’s confidence in Costa Rica is a source of hope. Echoing Chang, he said the lab will serve “not only for space exploration, but also to resolve problems very close to us” through solar energy and agricultural research.
One example of an earthbound application of the lab’s plasma research, according to Chang, is the potential use of plasma to destroy toxic wastes. However, the lab’s impact on Costa Rica will go beyond scientific solutions, he said, explaining that because the lab will need contractors to perform a number of services, such as precision welding, it will stimulate small business growth in the area surrounding the EARTH University Liberia campus.
He said he chose the site in part because of its proximity to Daniel Oduber International Airport, allowing easy transport for visiting scientists and staff from the Houston lab, located on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center.
Ad Astra Costa Rica also employs Costa Rican scientists, including Ronald Chang, physicist Jorge Andrés Díaz and mechanical engineer Jorge Oguilve, already at work in the lab. Students from Universidad Veritas in San José, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Florida round out the scientific team.
Chang announced that his wife Peggy and their youngest child, Miranda, may relocate from Houston to Guanacaste, though Chang will continue to travel between the two. Arias said this homecoming after more than 30 years living in the United States is an example of the kind of reverse “brain drain” Costa Rica should seek to encourage.
The President called Chang “one of Costa Rica’s favorite sons” and expressed gratitude for choosing Costa Rica as a lab site.
“At the pinnacle of his career, when thousands of doors were opening before him, he decided to return to his native land, to a Costa Rica that patiently awaits the return of so many who left to pursue their dreams,” he said. “It’s time that we, as a country, understand the vital importance of offering those who wish to return to their homeland an environment conducive to professional growth.”
He elicited some laughs from the crowd when he said he hopes the first passenger on Chang’s Mars rocket will be “the fear of change in Costa Rica. I hope the (rocket) takes it to Mars and leaves it there.”
Chang, born in San José, studied in Costa Rica and the United States and holds a doctorate in applied plasma physics from MIT. He retired from NASA in 2005 and took on various projects in Costa Rica, serving on President Abel Pacheco’s Council of Notables to evaluate the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) in 2005, and leading the team that created the Half-Century Plan for science education and research support, presented earlier this year (TT,April 21).He also volunteered at a polling station during February’s elections.
For more information on Ad Astra or VASIMR, visit www.adastrarocket.com.