On PBS: adventures of a rocket scientist
The PBS show NOVA scienceNow will feature former astronaut and Seabrook resident Franklin Chang-Diaz.
A bona fide rocket scientist who's now the head of Ad Astra Rocket Co. in Webster, Chang-Diaz has been working on plasma-powered rockets he hopes might help humans get to Mars. His 15-minute NOVA segment will be part of an episode that Channel 8 will run at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 14.
With the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's lunar landing coming up on July 20, this week was an opportune time to question Chang-Diaz about his life and work:
Q. You've said you decided to become a space explorer even before Apollo, as you followed the Sputnik missions as a child in Costa Rica. What do you remember about that?
A. I often recall playing inside a large cardboard box where I had placed old radios and other broken pieces of electronics and set up chairs lying on their backs where we would sit facing up. That was my rocket ship, and I would spend hours inside it with my crew, my friends and cousins. We would explore distant worlds and come back to Earth at the end of the day. In January of 1986, as I lay strapped to my seat inside the space shuttle Columbia just prior to my first flight into space, I felt for an instant that I had done that before.
Q. So many children, especially here in Clear Lake, dream of growing up to become astronauts, but so few pursue that dream into adulthood. What do you think was different about those of you who held on?
A. The space age was new and fresh. The world had become enamored with the challenge and the competition, and we had a leader who had known how to articulate this and present it as a challenge to an entire nation, if not to the world. It is ironic that, in my present experience, space is much more alive among the children of the developing world than among those in the more advanced nations. However, I believe that the ecologic threat to our survival that presents itself to all of humanity will once again rekindle the fire of space exploration among our youth.
Q. As hard as it is for anyone to become an astronaut, you had even tougher odds, having to move from Costa Rica as a teenager and learn English before you could pursue scientific studies that eventually persuaded NASA to take a look at you. Was that the hardest part of becoming an astronaut?
A. Becoming a scientist astronaut has been a life-long journey for me that has had many ups and downs, triumphs and defeats but the whole process of getting there has been, and continues to be, my life adventure. It is hard to pinpoint what was hardest and what was easiest. I would rather say it has been a most intense experience of life itself, an E ticket in this ride ever since I fell out of my mother's womb. The U.S. has been good to me. It has given me my "American dream." I often say that no one ever gets anywhere without someone else's help, and I had plenty of help along the way. I now wish to give something back to others who may be trying to realize their own dreams.
Q. With Apollo 11's 40th anniversary coming up, here's the question we've been asking lots of people: What do you remember about that historic first walk on the moon?
A. Everyone remembers that day, and so do I. I was starting as a summer student at the University of Connecticut just prior to my freshman year. I had come to the U.S.A. less than a year earlier to try to become an astronaut. As I watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon I, like probably millions of others, felt a certain sense of communion with him, but I also felt that I was a little bit closer to my goal.
Q. You told NOVA producers you actually became discouraged about your chances of getting to space right after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Can you explain why you didn't give up?
A. The Apollo Moon Program was canceled shortly after the first landing, and all of a sudden there were thousands of aerospace engineers out of work with Ph.D.'s and serving as gas station attendants or taxi cab drivers. One of my professors at UConn made it very clear to me that aerospace had no future. I have always been a stubborn person, and in my stubbornness I refused to believe that such a magnificent accomplishment would vanish into oblivion. I was sure the space program would ultimately rebound. But, in Costa Rica, through my parents' teachings, I had learned to be adaptable and flexible, and I was fascinated by the world of physics and the development of atomic power, which I believed someday would power space ships. The first energy crisis hit in the early 1970s and provided me with a very interesting detour into the field of plasma physics and controlled thermonuclear fusion, which became almost as captivating as space itself. Ultimately though, I was proven right, and the space program did rebound just in time for me to get on board.
Q. Of your graduate school studies at MIT, you told NOVA, "I didn't feel like I'd given up on my dream. I was just getting a little insurance, in case I couldn't become an astronaut after all." If you hadn't been chosen as an astronaut, would you have gone on to lead a fulfilled, happy life?
A. Controlled thermonuclear fusion, to create a small sun right here on earth, was so enthralling and fascinating that I nearly forgot about the space program. It was not until 1977 when the space shuttle Enterprise made its first atmospheric test flight and NASA began looking for new astronauts that the dream came back to me with all its force. I had become a scientist and a U.S. citizen, I was young and in excellent health with all the technical qualifications for the astronaut job. This was my chance and I took it. But if it had not panned out, I would have continued my life adventure and, who knows, maybe I would have finished building my own rocket by now and taken a ride into space on my own.
Q. Can you explain your current work on the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket and why it's important?
A. There was a paradigm shift when steam power replaced the sail and people could travel faster and cheaper across the ocean. The same occurred when the automobile replaced the horse cart. Today, the chemical rocket is the horse cart of space travel, and we will not get very far in space on it. Plasma rockets, like VASIMR, are the new automobile engines that will power the space transportation of the future (and the future is now). With these engines we can fly to Mars in one month, instead of eight, and have access to the entire solar system with reasonable travel times. We can also make space operations near Earth economically sustainable and open space to everyone, as it should be, not just to a selected few. I believe the VASIMR engine will bring about such a revolution and open space for business and commerce as the railroads opened the western frontier. Ultimately, humanity will live and work in space and the Earth will become a protected area, a sort of humanity's national park, where we can all come back to enjoy its beauty and understand our past.
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