The Rocket That Will Take Us To Mars

Franklin Chang Díaz. Photo: NASA

Franklin Chang Díaz. Photo: NASA

Meet Franklin Chang Díaz, the 60-year-old astronaut who has developed a nuclear rocket that could speed humans to Mars within a week, profiled in Popular Science:

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.

Chang Díaz has spent nearly his entire career laboring to convince anyone who would listen that his idea will work, but that career has also taken several turns in the process. One day in 1980, he was pitching the unlimited potential of plasma rockets to yet another MIT professor. The professor listened patiently. “It sounds like borderline science fiction, I know,” Chang Díaz was saying. Then the telephone rang. The professor held up a finger. “Why, yes, he’s right here,” the surprised engineer said into the receiver, then handed it over. “Franklin, it’s for you.” NASA was on the line. The standout student from Costa Rica had been selected to become an astronaut, the first naturalized American ever chosen for NASA’s most elite corps. “I was so excited, I was practically dancing,” Chang Díaz recalls. “I almost accidentally strangled my professor with the telephone cord.”

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…

[continues in in Popular Science]

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