You might expect to find our brightest hope for sending astronauts to other planets in Houston, at NASA's Johnson Space Center, inside a high-security multibillion-dollar facility. But it's actually a few miles down the street, in a large warehouse behind a strip mall. This bland and uninviting building is the private aerospace start-up Ad Astra Rocket Company, and inside, founder Franklin Chang Díaz is building a rocket engine that's faster and more powerful than anything NASA has ever flown before. Speed, Chang Díaz believes, is the key to getting to Mars alive. In fact, he tells me as we peer into a three-story test chamber, his engine will one day travel not just to the Red Planet, but to Jupiter and beyond.
I look skeptical, and Chang Díaz smiles politely. He's used to this reaction. He has been developing the concept of a plasma rocket since 1973, when he become a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His idea was this: Rocket fuel is a heavy and inefficient propellant. So instead he imagined building a spaceship engine that uses nuclear reactors to heat plasma to two million degrees. Magnetic fields would eject the hot gas out of the back of the engine. His calculations showed that a spaceship using such an engine could reach 123,000 miles per hour—New York to Los Angeles in about a minute.
All astronauts have big dreams, but Franklin Chang Díaz's dreams are huge. As a college student, as a 25-year astronaut and as an entrepreneur, his single animating intention has always been to build—and fly—a rocketship to Mars. "Of course I wanted to be an astronaut, and of course I want to be able to fly in this," he says of his plasma-thrust rocket. "I mean, I just can't imagine not flying in a rocket I would build." And now he's close. In four years Chang Díaz will deploy his technology for the first time in space, when his company, aided by up to $100 million in private funding, plans to test a small rocket on the International Space Station. If this rocket, most commonly known by its loose acronym, Vasimr, for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, proves itself worthy, he has an aggressive timetable for constructing increasingly bigger plasma-thrust space vehicles.
Chang Díaz describes his dreams in relatively practical terms. He doesn't intend to go straight to Mars. First he will develop rockets that perform the more quotidian aspects of space maintenance needed by private companies and by the government: fixing, repositioning, or reboosting wayward satellites; clearing out the ever-growing whirl of "space junk" up there; fetching the stuff that can be salvaged. "Absolutely, fine, I'm not too proud to say it. We're basically running a trucking business here," he says. "We'll be sort of a Triple-A tow truck in space. We're happy to be a local garbage collector in space. That's a reliable, sustainable, affordable business, and that's how you grow."
Such a belief may seem overly ambitious, but the goals of aviation have always seemed that way. In October 1903, for instance, astronomer Simon Newcomb, the founding president of the American Astronomical Society, spelled out a series of reasons why the concept of powered flight was dubious. "May not our mechanicians," he asked, "be ultimately forced to admit that aerial flight is one of the great class of problems with which man can never cope, and give up all attempts to grapple with it?" Less than two months later, the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. And in the 1920s a young man named Frank Whittle was coming up with drawings for a theoretical engine very different from the propeller-driven kind, one that might scoop in air through turbines and fire it through a series of "jet" nozzles. "Very interesting, Whittle, my boy," said one of his professors of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cambridge. "But it will never work."
Chang Díaz decided he wanted to be an astronaut at the age of seven, when his mother explained the U.S.-Soviet space race to him. He went out that night to stare at the stars and look for Sputnik. But he soon realized that he had a problem. He happened to be a citizen of Costa Rica, and Costa Rica had no space program. When he was a teenager, he sent a letter to NASA asking how to become an astronaut. He got a letter back saying that to fly with NASA, he must be an American citizen. Boldness runs in his family—his Chinese grandfather fought against the Qing dynasty and fled to Costa Rica during a crackdown on the Nationalist movement. So Chang Díaz was not about to let a thing like citizenship deter him.
After graduating high school, intent on joining NASA, Chang Díaz went to live with relatives in Connecticut. Despite his limited English, he won a University of Connecticut scholarship, one reserved for American citizens. Somebody somehow thought Costa Rica was Puerto Rico, he recalls with a laugh, and after the mistake was pointed out, he was told that the scholarship was being withdrawn. He appealed to university administrators, who agreed to take up his cause with the state, and part of the scholarship was restored, enough to make it possible for him to attend college.
His work was so outstanding there that he was accepted into MIT's doctoral program for nuclear engineering. Then he applied to be an astronaut. NASA turned him down. (Chang Díaz says it was probably because his application for U.S. citizenship had yet to go through.) After he became naturalized—he now holds dual American–Costa Rican citizenship—he tried again, as one of nearly 4,000 applicants for 19 open positions. His plasma-physics doctorate, his singular focus on spaceship engines, his superb physical condition and his obvious drive combined to make him one of NASA's select.
Being an astronaut, Chang Díaz says now, helped him to focus even more on his own vision, and it left him with a much stronger belief that speed was of the essence to get to Mars and beyond. "Believe me," he says, "nobody will want to sit around in a spacecraft for six to eight months if you know you can get there faster."
"Whether we'll find gold or riches or something we can't even imagine," he says, "we'll never know until we arrive there to find out. I really don't even see Mars as the end point; I see it as more of a waypoint. We'll open up the entire solar system. Someday we'll find life out there, and everything will change."
Chang Díaz compares space exploration as it has been practiced thus far to exploration as it was practiced in the early years of the American frontier, when Lewis and Clark's government-backed expedition brought back a trove of knowledge about the American West. The next phase, he believes, will be much more like the era of growth in the mid-1800s, when private railroads and mining outfits, helped along by land grants and other government aid, opened the West to epic expansion and settlement.
But, he says, space exploration isn't simply a question of national achievement anymore. "We no longer have a big confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviets," he says. "It's totally different now. We all need each other to make this work." He hopes U.S. citizens will be involved, but even that is by no means certain. "Countries like Brazil, India, China, some in Europe—there's a lot of the same chemistry that the U.S. was feeling, say, 50 or 100 years ago. It's a new club of developers."
To hear Chang Díaz describe it, we're on the verge of a shift from a nationalistic march toward dominance to a much more open and improvisational approach to innovation. If that's true, it's worth noting that he emerged from 25 years at NASA with his sense of improvisation intact.
That's a bit much, Chang Díaz remembers thinking. "Why wouldn't I just delay the reentry by a moment and land in Fiji, or the Indian Ocean, or somewhere else warm and pleasant?" But that was the assignment, and so the trio sat in full flight gear inside a half-buried capsule as engineers heated up the exterior to reentry temperatures with a blowtorch. "It was a sauna," he says.
The crew then had to remove their suits and don survival gear. The capsule was so tight that the process took the better part of a day, with each astronaut taking turns being helped out of one suit and into the other. Finally, they emerged into blinding snow and looked at their manual, which told them to build a shelter. Chang Díaz rolls his eyes at the memory.
Turning to his freezing teammates, he told them to gather up the capsule's parachute silk. His father-in-law, during hunting trips in Montana, had taught him how to build a winter teepee. With the trunks of nearby birch trees and the silk, he improvised. Half an hour later, he had a fire burning inside, and the three were soon sitting in their socks, dry and comfortable.
Soon a face poked through the flap. The Russians, watching from a ridge through binoculars, wanted to know what was going on. A teepee was not in any manual. Was everyone all right? The crew smiled.
We're fine, Chang Díaz told them. You look so cold. Come on in. So the observers joined them, sat down, doffed their jackets, and sipped tea.
Chang Díaz, of all people, knows how hard it is to return safely to Earth. His career was bookended by death—death that could have been his own but for the routine tweaks of NASA's scheduling log. The agency decided to pull him off his first scheduled mission on the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and put him on the mission just before instead. Sixteen days later, newly returned to Earth, he watched his close friends and colleagues perish when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. He went on to fly a total of seven missions between 1986 and 2002—he's tied for the all-time record among astronauts—and logged 1,601 hours beyond Earth's atmosphere. Then, a few months after his final mission, Columbia broke apart during reentry, killing all seven people aboard.
Chang Díaz's invention will do little to reduce the dangers of liftoff. Plasma engines depend on the vacuum of space and still require "venerable chemical rockets," as Chang Díaz calls them, to reach Earth orbit. But outer space is where his work stands to vastly improve the safety of a crew. As he points out, a lot can go wrong en route to another planet. The limitation of space travel with a conventional rocket is that the rocket must use its entire fuel supply at once in a single, controlled explosion to reach Earth orbit. It then coasts along at a mostly uniform speed until it enters Mars's gravity. NASA estimates that such a trip would take about seven months. During that time, Chang Díaz explains, there is no abort procedure. The ship cannot change course. If an accident occurs, Earth would be watching, in a 10-minute communications delay, the slow death of the crew. "Chemical rockets are not going to get us to Mars," he says flatly. "It's just too long a trip."
A plasma rocket like Vasimr, on the other hand, sustains propulsion over the entire journey. It accelerates gradually, reaching a maximum speed of 34 miles per second over 23 days. That's at least four times as fast as any chemical rocket could travel, shaving at least six months off a trip to Mars and minimize the risk of mechanical dangers, exposure to solar radiation (Chang Díaz's design shields the crew behind hydrogen
tanks), bone loss, muscle atrophy or any of a thousand other liabilities along the way. And because propulsion is available throughout the trip, the ship could change course at any time.
But human spaceflight programs are currently built around old-fashioned rocketry. NASA has invested mostly in propulsion systems powered by chemical fuel, and for sensible reasons. Chang Díaz's rocket presents many challenges. For one thing, a Vasimr-powered Mars craft would need several nuclear reactors on board to generate the large amount of electricity required to heat the plasma. NASA set to work on a nuclear reactor for space travel in 2003 but scrapped the project after only two years—the risk of radiation from an explosion or crash was likely too great— and redirected its resources to more conventional propulsion programs. For another, no one has yet determined how to make certain that plasma gas can be safely channeled through a magnetic field. Or just how the human body might respond to traveling at speeds of up to 34 miles per second. "The reality is, rockets don't always work," says Elon Musk, the driving force behind the rocket company SpaceX, one of the key players in the emerging private space industry. For Musk, who struggled for years to get his Falcon 1 rocket into orbit, the stakes seem particularly high in the case of rockets carrying nuclear material. "If something goes wrong, you have radioactive debris falling to Earth—you have a disaster," he says.
It's true that conventional rockets would be required to put a Mars-bound plasma ship into orbit, but Chang Díaz disputes the notion that launching Vasimr would pose extra risks. The reactors would remain inactivate until the ship was out of the danger zone for spreading radiation back to Earth, he notes. And NASA has already successfully launched several nuclear-electric probes. Nothing is impossible. "We can do this safely," he says. "Our understanding is evolving all the time, but we know that in order to go far, we have to go fast. That's what Vasimr is all about."
You can do it, buddy! Where do I sign up?
"NASA set to work on a nuclear reactor for space travel in 2003 but scrapped the project after only two years—the risk of radiation from an explosion or crash was likely too great"
You guessed wrong. Launching nuclear reactors into space presents significant challenges, but they are not insurmountable. For example, Mars Science Laboratory is set to launch next year with 10 pounds of plutonium on board. NASA's work on nuclear propulsion begun in 2003 was scrapped two years later because the money was reallocated to the Constellation program. Many other promising science and technology programs suffered the same fate.
We Gotta keep Strivin' Foward ..Pushin' ahead..Someone has got to Lead The way ...Continue to Keep Pushin Positively Forever Forward into the Future..
The best possible future ..Would be to.. Explore/Inhabit other Worlds/Planets..And Still have a home to come back to for Supper...
Over and Out there from Here ...DEEEEEP SPAAAACE...( Spend half my time there ;))
is it possible to use anti-matter to heat the plasma?
I'm seeing star treck in the near future (minus the WWIII part)
Such a propulsion system is so vital to our future exploration of space(both robotic and human), I'm surprised it hasn't caused much more of a stir than it has so far. The obvious advantage to the decrease in data recovery wait time is such a strong advocate all by itself, especially for more distant gas giants & dwarf planets. I hope the wait won't be too much longer.
You guys should of put that 10 min interview vid. on N. Science Now of the plasma engine in action.
You'd probably have to buy the rights to do so though.
Would a space elevator be a possible solution to the nuclear element? If people are worried about putting something explosive near a nuclear device, why not have the nuclear device assembled, shipped up to space, then attached to the ship after it leaves the atmosphere? This may seem a little sci-fi, but bear with me. Not only would you need less fuel to lift the spacecraft into space, there would be no risk of nuclear explosion in the atmosphere. To me, it seems like a viable option (assuming we ever build a space elevator, that is XD).
I don't get the bit where the article says we don't know "just how the human body might respond to traveling at speeds of up to 34 miles per second."
... um, my understanding of this is that the astronaut won't be able to tell what speed he is going. So I'm guessing the response will be boredom.
Yeah. That was a little weird. It's not like 34mps is a relativistic velocity. Acceleration, though constant, is almost zero. Whats the problem?
Sounds like historic naysayers to space travel, breaking the sound barrier, human flight, running the one minute mile etc.
We, all Costa rican people are very proud about Franklin Chang Díaz achievements. We all know his goals for an interplanetary engine will prove realistic in the future.
Go on Franklin.
Jose L. Castro, EE, Costa Rica
I read somewhere that you can use shuttles to bring up parts and assemble it in orbit, rather than launching it from Earth or using a space elevator. Maybe that's an idea.
Do people bother to read articles?
This article doesn't propose anything to do with a space elevator. So why ask?
Nor does the article say anything about how a Mars mission craft would be assembled, in orbit or otherwise. However, common sense does suggest that a Mars mission ship will be a tad large, I'll make a guess and say that it will need to be several hundred tonnes. No rocket exists that could launch this from Earth, and ... um, we don't seem to have a space elevator handy, so maybe, just maybe, they might be considering building it in orbit.
... maybe I should post my reply 38 times, so that the idiots will read it.
This article is worthless. "That's how you grow," this article claims, and that by destroying the government and NASA?
I am just wondering which private corporation was instrumental in sending the first astronauts to outer space and then to the moon in the 1960s. Was it Enron or perhaps Virgin Galactic or SpaceX?
If the morons will think, then of course we need NASA and government funding to get us to mars and then to build these space vehicles and the infrastructure to get there. This will never work and who is so dumb to believe this article that destroying NASA and government is what we need to get to space. As it is already doing it is killing space travel.
SCIENCE FICTION IS NEAT
The G-force effect on the human body isnt even a factor through 'gradual accelleration'.
As it is, we on earth are already traveling at just over 1000 miles per hour.
When lauched into space at almost 29,000 mph and the G-force, though brutal, is still something we have no problem with.
Like anything in travel...the force on the object (human or craft) is noted in the cause of the friction and the friction itself.
One of the main causes of friction or negative force is gravity and atmosphere...
In space there is no such atmosphere and gravitational pull is at a pretty large minimum unless you aproach another object of substantial mass.
Thus, at a gradual increase in speed, much like one does with an accellerator in a car a body would eventually reach a level of comfort at speeds at 173,000 mph in an environment that has little or no resistance to the human body itself.
The world may be passing by at extremely accellerated speeds, but in our 'lil' world, everything is seems normal.
The only thing I have a problem with is how this guy plans on making a reactive plasma engine that can sustain temperatures of 2 million degrees for long periods of time without melting the engine itself.
The highest melting point of any element or carbon alloy, doesnt even come close to sustaining these temperatures.
Currently the record-holder is tantalum hafnium carbide (Ta4HfC5), a refractory compound with a melting point of 4488 K (4215 °C, 7619 °F).
Rocket boosters only reach a maximum temperature of 6000 degrees F.
So I would say hes got a long way to go, just to build an apparatus that can hold his Idea.
You think space travel is dangerous and tedious now? Try sending something that needs to heat up to 2,000,000 degrees F out of our atmosphere. It would just melt or probably go 'poof!' in about two seconds.
Great Idea...but unless this guy has God himself holding the reactor...its not going to happen.
I mean for crud's sake the surface of the sun is waaaay colder than what he is saying hes going to accomplish with heat exhaust prepulsion.
Check what I found on Ad Astra's website!
Look at the fifth picture with the caption "A photograph of Ad Astra scientists using a laser alignment rig with the VX-200. Credit: Ad Astra Rocket Company"
Is that a NORTH KOREAN flag on the laser alignment rig?
With gradual accelleration, the speed is not an issue. What IS an issue is going to be micro-meteorites or other floating spatial material that will strike the surface of the spacecraft moving that fast, and will more than likely penetrate the ships' outer hull. The second big concern will be how effectively the craft can rotate so as to not have its sides exposed to cosmic radiation for any given length of time as it will eventually be a health concern of radiation exposure. Now, given the velocity they are trying to achieve, I would think the stress caused in trying to moderately turn a craft on an axis would be quite significant.
it looks like it but why would it be there.
The picture isnt high quality enough to get a match
The flag is from Costa Rica.
Your first clue should have been from a previous comment from jlcastroa that began "We, all Costa rican people are very proud about Franklin Chang Díaz achievements."
I still think the most viable solution to Mars in 39... Is to use a nonconventional nuclear reactor... A liquid thorium.... Much safer, much lighter, well within today's technology ... To power this plasma drive our friend above is taking about. And thorium is both plentiful and makes a good solar radiation shield.
best way of getting the nuclear material into orbit without harming anyone or burning too much fuel, would be to package it into an unmanned rocket which would be piggy-backed on a plane, flown up to near atmosphere, launched in mid air. this way, any risk should be massively reduced. if its unmanned, we dont lose our genius astronauts. only downside, is that as we all know, a nuclear explosion in the upper atmospher would cause an e.m.p. as for the heat issues, there would be minimal friction due to the use of magnets, and the speed at which you would be travelling would keep you away from the heat, because the plasma that is being heated is being ejected and left behind you, plus the fact that by the looks of the design, the hydrogen is whats being burned, and that being used as a catalyst for the plasma as it is ejected, not within a chamber or otherwise. before he lost his arm, my dad was an aircraft engineer, im not, but learned a few bobs. seems like a sweet design to me. and lets face it, if nasa has let the dude into the fold, he clearly has some kudos, else they'd have just told him they held a patent themselves and kicked him to the kerb.
@jaydeadone It doesn't seem that you read the whole article.
Of course there's no material which can contain anything at such temperatures, however in the article and drawings you can see that the idea is to hold the plasma with magnetic fields.
And this is not just an idea, it's something that they are already doing in their labs, that's why their plans have realy near dates (in this industry two years is a really short term).
Just to set you guys straight. It is not a nuclear explosion or reactor melt-down they are worried about. That should be easy enough to avoid. What they are referring to is the chemical rocket taking the reactor to orbit exploding and dispersing the nuclear material in the atmosphere causing radioactive fallout. Think dirty bomb, not A-bom/H-bomb.
As for the 2 million degree plasma burning up the containment vessel. I would hazard a guess that electro-magnetic fields would be involved in containing it rather than physical walls.
Another proud Costa Rican citizen salutes you Franklin; live long and prosper!
I hope to see you flying in your own spaceship and hopefully to Mars!
Thanks for being a AAA citizen!
I find it incredible that we Earthlings don't give a hang about releasing nuclear radiation IN SPACE. All the comments I read seemed to say "As long as we can get the nuclear propulsion hardware safely into space, then there's no reason not to use it.
Is the assumption that extraterrestrials are so likely to be of a totally different biology, that we don't even have to consider their safety, in indiscriminately spewing some serious half-life matter in all directions. And please, no lectures on the vastness of space. Our vehicle is presumably going SOMEWHERE, and how will that somewhere not become contaminated? I'll try not to mention the potential danger to the crew. I respect their bravery and scientific curiosity. The astronaut/inventor, Mr. Chiang Diaz himself, states he plans to use this technology as propulsion for his start up space garbage trucking company. And though he's operating in a vacuum literally, such work will no doubt entail contact with other spacefarers, so in that sense he won't be irradiating 'in a vaccum.'
OK, I think I understand that the fission is expected to be contained, and only the plasma, when superheated by the fission, will be expelled into space. Can this be done without the plasma becoming radioactive? And what is the percentage likelihood of this new technology working perfectly from the start, and successfully containing all nuclear radiation?
Oh I forgot, that's a risk that can be safely ignored.
Viva Costa Rica just the same. I had a great friend from there, turned me on to Elvis Presley in 1957 : )