Profile: Franklin Chang-Diaz

  • Posted 07.14.09
  • NOVA scienceNOW

(This video is no longer available for streaming.) Franklin Chang-Dí­az was NASA's first Latin-American to go into space, and he's been there seven times, which ties the record. But his greatest accomplishment may be yet to come. The Costa Rican native is designing a plasma-based rocket engine that he believes will revolutionize space travel, putting our entire solar system at our disposal.

Running Time: 10:52


Profile: Franklin Chang Dí­az

PBS Airdate: July 14, 2009

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: A lot of us are hoping that someday soon, people are going to board a spaceship and travel to Mars, which, on a good day, is at least 40 million miles away.

Right now, that trip takes about seven months, each way. But since there's no filling stations or places to go shopping en route, that means you've got to pack your ride with at least 14 months of supplies.

But what if you built a spaceship that could go much faster, and make the round trip in about three months? Well, in this episode's profile, we meet a rocket scientist who thinks he knows how to do it. And his new rocket could shave months off a commute to the Red Planet.

Franklin Chang Díaz loves watching Star Trek with his wife and youngest daughter.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: I've been a Trekkie since I came to the United States. We watch the episodes over and over and over again.

MIRANDA CHANG DíAZ (Franklin Chang Díaz's Daughter): My dad kind of passed this rule that we can't watch it without him.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Franklin's favorite character? Mr. Spock.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: He has a very important position of leadership in his crew. Mr. Spock is a scientist, but he also flies.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Like Spock, Franklin knows a few things about being a scientist and a space traveler. He was NASA's first Latin American astronaut to go into space.

NASA MISSION CONTROL (Archival Footage): We have liftoff, liftoff of Columbia, mission 61-C.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He's been to space seven times, which ties the record. And he spent the last three decades developing a futuristic rocket engine.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: I believe that this rocket will revolutionize space travel. We will have the entire solar system at our disposal.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Franklin's journey began in the Central American country of Costa Rica, where he dreamt of becoming an astronaut.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: I was probably about four or five, and I took my sister, at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and we climbed to the roof of our house. And we sat on the roof, eating grapefruits with sugar and looking at the stars. The sky was absolutely beautiful. I knew that among those stars there were other worlds, other places, and I wanted to be there. I wanted to go there.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: His first step toward space travel? He built a rocket for his high school science fair.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: It had a little capsule, with a small mouse and a parachute. And of course, the first stage was a complete failure and the mouse survived, which was a real triumph.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: When he finished high school, Franklin was determined to become an astronaut. His father took out a loan and bought him a ticket to the United States.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: And he said, "Look, this is all I can do for you right now." My parents never said, "It cannot be done."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: With only $50 in his pocket and no knowledge of English, Franklin arrived at the home of cousins in Hartford, Connecticut. He enrolled in high school, worked hard to learn English and let everyone know he meant business.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: I decided that I would wear a tie and a jacket every single day. And so, my teachers were, actually, a little bit surprised to see this boy coming to school with a tie and jacket, with some weird dreams about going into space.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: His hard work paid off, and he won a full scholarship to college.

Within four years, Franklin had started a family and was a graduate student at M.I.T., studying nuclear fusion and developing concepts for an experimental rocket engine.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: The idea began as a result of my Ph.D. thesis. It was clear to me that chemical rockets, the conventional rockets that we had been using all along, were not really going to give us the capability to travel far, to Mars, to Jupiter.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He was on the road to building his first real rocket, when, in 1977, NASA issued a call for a new group of astronauts. Thirty-five-hundred would apply, only 15 would be chosen. Franklin was one of those 15.

MARIA (Franklin Chang Díaz's Mother): When he called us, I was so overcome with emotion that I yelled, "He did it! He did it!" And my husband was crying. He cried with tears, but he couldn't speak. I was the only woman in the country who was a mother of an astronaut, no one else.

NASA MISSION CONTROL (Archival Footage): T minus 20 seconds.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: What I had prepared for, for my entire life...

NASA MISSION CONTROL (Archival Footage): T minus 12 seconds.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: ...was actually happening.

NASA MISSION CONTROL (Archival Footage): T minus 10; go for engine start.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: When the engines lit up, the whole thing shakes like there's no tomorrow, and you're off.

NASA MISSION CONTROL (Archival Footage): ...two, one, we have ignition; we have liftoff, liftoff of Columbia, mission 61-C. And the shuttle has cleared the tower.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: And then, all of a sudden, everything stops. Everything floats; you're in space. Everybody rushes to look out the window, and what you see is the most beautiful thing you ever saw. And that is worth all the effort and all the trouble and all the difficulty.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Today, he shares a record for the most missions in space, and he's the most famous man in his home country of Costa Rica.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: Viva, Costa Rica!

MIRANDA CHANG DíAZ: It's amazing how much they react towards him. It's like he's Hercules or something.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Franklin now has privately funded labs in Houston and Costa Rica, where he devotes all of his time to testing and developing a plasma rocket engine, the same rocket he conceived of as a graduate student at M.I.T.

The testing takes place inside a large steel vacuum chamber, where the engine is fired.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: His rocket works by heating the gas argon to extremely high temperatures, until the gas changes into what's called a "plasma."

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: Typically, a conventional rocket runs at temperatures of a few thousand degrees. Sounds pretty hot, but we would like to run at temperatures of a few million degrees, temperatures like the sun...big difference.

At those temperatures, the stuff that you're shooting is going so fast that you only need little, tiny amounts of it.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: That's what makes Franklin's rocket so revolutionary. It could use a fraction of the fuel used by conventional rocket engines, which could save millions of dollars in fuel costs.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: So, you have a very small fuel tank. You can then make a tremendous rocket that way.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: In 2012, for its first field test, Franklin's rocket will be fired on the International Space Station, 200 miles above the surface of the earth. If it works, his rocket may someday take the first humans to Mars.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: If you use a conventional rocket to go to Mars, it will take you about seven months; if you use a plasma rocket, it will take you about 39 days.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Franklin imagines a future where space travel will be like Star Trek, with no limits to where we can go.

FRANKLIN CHANG DíAZ: My dream or my vision is a future for humanity where we will have the entire solar system at our disposal. Humans will be inhabiting space in a big way. I think all human beings dream. I always tell the kids I meet to follow your dreams; it's the first thing I tell them, to not let anyone tell you that you can't do something, until you find out for yourself. I'm talking about the ability of a child to say, "Look, I want to change the world." Go do it.

On Screen Text: Question: What is plasma anyway? Answer: A gas that has been energized to the point that electrons break free from, but travel with their nucleus. Like this.

By the way, NOVA scienceNOW and plasma, we go way back. Neon-xenon plasma inside!


Profile: Franklin Chang Dí­az

Edited by
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0638931. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Image credit: (Franklin Chang-Dí­az) © NASA


Franklin Chang-Diaz
Miranda Chang-Diaz
Franklin's daughter

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