Starting a company to develop plasma-driven rocket engines is a pretty good postretirement career. But when your first career fulfilled a childhood dream of being an astronaut, wouldn’t anything else pale in comparison?
“I was prepared to be kind of underwhelmed, but making a company go has turned out to be just as exciting as spaceflight,” says Franklin Chang Díaz from the Texas headquarters of Ad Astra Rocket Company. He has led the company since retiring from NASA in 2005 after a record-setting seven space flights. “Starting from scratch, raising capital, promoting the business, and meeting our milestones has been nonstop,” he says, “and I’ve loved it.”
Ad Astra is working to commercialize the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine design, which has roots dating to Chang Díaz’s mid-1970s doctoral work in nuclear science and engineering at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. During that time he collaborated with Lawrence Lidsky, a professor of nuclear science and engineering, and professor David Rose, a fusion pioneer, and was also influenced by physics professor Bruno Coppi.
While not suited for escaping Earth’s gravity, VASIMR would be launched in space, doubling payloads and halving transit times for lunar and interplanetary missions, thanks to an argon plasma and superconducting magnets that convert the plasma particles’ thermal motion into directed thrust. Plans call for a 2016 test aboard the International Space Station.
Space and rockets fascinated Chang Díaz during his childhood in Costa Rica and spurred his 1968 emigration to the United States, where he completed high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut. After earning his PhD, he was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1980, made his first flight on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, and served for 12 years as director of NASA’s Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory.
Did space travel ever get routine? “Never,” says Chang Díaz. “I learned to take more in and savor it better as I got accustomed to the sensations, the feel of the machine and the environment. I lived in awe of what I was seeing and experiencing and couldn’t get enough of it. If I could bring my family, I’d want to stay there.”
Chang Díaz has undertaken several initiatives to boost space-oriented research in Central and South America, and he is an avid pilot and scuba diver. He is also working on the second volume of an autobiographical trilogy. He is married to Peggy Marguerite Stafford, and they have four children and two grandchildren.