Until he retired in July 2005, Franklin Chang-Diaz was an astronaut and physicist born in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 1950, becoming an American citizen in 1977. His last name is reminiscent of martial arts because Chang is of Chinese ascendants. When he was about to finish high school, his parents sent him to the United States with only $50 in his pocket. His film, far from martial arts, could have been titled A Costa Rican lost in America. But Chang did not allow fate to choose for him, he graduated and later attended the University of Connecticut, where he obtained a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1973. Later he obtained a PhD in Applied Plasma Physics. The film in which he really wanted to be was 2001, Space Odyssey or Apollo XIII. As a child he built his own space rocket, a ship made of card boxes with chairs inside and his own radio. In 1980, his dream became reality and he was one of 19 chosen among 3,000 candidates to join NASA “Houston, we have a problem,” was no longer a phrase Chang heard only in a TV
First Latin American astrounat and creator of the plasma motor VASIMR®
Chang has the honor of having been the first Latin American NASA astronaut, the third from the Western Hemisphere who is not American to travel in space, and one of the few men with the most missions and space hours travelled in history: specifically 1,600 hours, including 1,500 in jet propulsion aircrafts. His first space trip was in 1986, six years after he had been chosen as astronaut candidate by NASA. His mission was STS-61-C of the Columbia space shuttle; lasted six days and it included placement of the SATCOM KU satellite and performing several lab tests. Since then Chang could feel like the type of hero whose return is welcomed with a parade leading to Broadway – like Lindbergh. After other missions (7 in all), Chang participated in one of the most ambitious: the STS-111 (2002), in which he took 3 space walks which lasted 16 hours as part of the construction of the orbital mini city called International Space Station. THE RED PLANET – CLOSER THAN EVER? Dr. Chang is developing a motor-rocket with VASIMR® propulsion (Variable-Specific-Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) a new space motor invented by him. As of now, rocket propulsion has always been of chemical origin (also the ones we fire during festivities), but these type of rockets are actually very slow. Chang’s new propulsion is based on plasma, which is the fourth state of matter, the same of which the sun and the stars are made of, and which will allow astronauts to travel at a speed ten times faster than at present. Plasma is obtained when gas reaches temperatures exceeding 50,000 degrees Celsius. Chang is trying to obtain propulsion for future human missions to Mars which, within a few years, would allow a trip to be made in only one month. Reaching space was not enough for Chang: he also wants man to reach other planets. “The human being who will walk on Mars has already been born.” His Legacy Chang continues fighting every day to promote science, technology and education throughout the world and in Latin America in particular. He recently published his first book, The First Years, which is the first part of a trilogy where he will explain how he accomplished his dreams – a book that hopefully will inspire many children who feel attracted by space when they look up at the stars. Chang’s name is familiar in every corner of Costa Rica and will be forever, as a hero of science fiction.