Posted November 23rd, 2009
If you’re interested in a great American success story — or in plasma physics — the place to be on December 2, from noon to 1:30, is the Pfizer Auditorium.
There you’ll have the opportunity to hear Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz, former NASA astronaut and current chairman and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company, speak about his life and work. Chang-Díaz is the inventor of the patented Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) and other plasma-powered space-vehicle technologies. In 1994, he founded and directed the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory (ASPL) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he managed a multicenter research team to develop this concept. The VASIMR engine will be especially interesting to NYU-Poly’s students of plasma physics and mechanical and electrical engineering.
His invitation is thanks to Charles Camarda, NYU-Poly Distinguished Engineer in Residence and a former astronaut who’s on loan to NYU-Poly from NASA. “Chang-Díaz’s rocket works,” Camarda emphasizes. “It could revolutionize space travel. It’s different from the ones you see at Cape Canaveral, involving energized high-temperature ionized gas. It travels at low mass but at a very high speed, so from here to Mars takes 39 days with his engine instead of six to nine months. He hopes to fly to the International Space Station in 2012. If all works out as planned, the rocket will keep the Space Station in its orbit without having to carry fuel up there.” Camarda adds that the President's committee on space flight said this is “exactly the type of research NASA should be doing.”
Born in Costa Rica, Chang-Díaz moved to the United States at age 17 — without speaking a word of English — to pursue his dream of becoming an astronaut. He earned a BS in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut, and an ScD in plasma physics from MIT in 1977, the same year he became a US citizen. Accepted into the space program in 1980, Chang-Díaz has flown on seven space flights — tying the record for most flights — and spent an impressive 1,601 hours away from Earth. He was instrumental in implementing closer ties between the astronaut corps and the scientific community.
Chang-Dìaz is the recipient of four NASA Distinguished Service Medals, the agency’s highest honor, as well as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 2001 Wyld Propulsion Award for his research on the VASIMR engine, and several honorary doctorates. In 1986, Chang-Díaz received the Liberty Medal from President Ronald Reagan, and in 1987 the Medal of Excellence from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
His talk is sponsored in part by SHPE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. As the first Latino-American astronaut, “Franklin’s a great role model for Hispanic students,” says Camarda. “To realize his dream, he had to overcome hardships and risk it all to come to this country. It’s a great immigrant story.” Throughout his years in the United States, Chang Díaz has aspired to promote education, science, technology, and space in Latin America. He currently leads the implementation of the “Strategy for the XXI Century,” a plan to transform Costa Rica into a fully developed nation by the year 2050. “He’s a space entrepreneur in Texas and Costa Rica,” says Camarda, “so he’s giving back to both Costa Rica and the US.”
Now Chang-Díaz is taking a different type of risk, by starting his own company. “Franklin embodies everything about NYU-Poly’s i2e — people who are creative, but with the desire and wherewithal to develop their own companies,” says Camarda. “It’s what problem-solving is all about: bringing the right communities, the right teams, of people and expertise together, and watch them be very creative in solving problems.”
Camarda continues enthusiastically: As a speaker, Chang-Díaz is, he says, “moving, dynamic, and explains the most difficult ideas in physics in terms undergraduates can understand, but even plasma physicists will appreciate. He’s the American dream and the embodiment of NYU-Poly’s vision, all rolled up into one person who’s done it all.”