When most people think about visiting Costa Rica, their daydreams include wildlife conservation, national parks, luxury ecotourism, zip-line canopy tours, pristine beaches, epic surfing, and perhaps the nation’s long-standing commitment to peace. They may not even realize that Costa Rica is also on the cutting edge of space exploration.
The Ad Astra Rocket Company, located just outside Liberia, Guanacaste, is currently developing a plasma engine set to revolutionize interplanetary travel. Current technologies from the US and Russia can get human beings to Mars, theoretically, but the voyage would take at least nine months, exposing astronauts to potentially deadly doses of radiation, not to mention years of their lives. Costa Rica’s Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) will be able to take us to the Red Planet in just 39 days.
The man behind this endeavor is Franklin Chang-Diaz, Ad Astra’s founder and CEO, NASA’s most well-traveled astronaut, and a hero to every young science-minded Costa Rican. A native of San Jose, Chang-Diaz was born to a father of Chinese descent (Costa Rica has been a popular destination for Chinese immigrants since the early 1800s) and traditionally Tica mother, who made sure he had an outstanding (by Central American standards) science education.
That wasn’t enough for young Franklin to achieve his dreams of becoming a NASA astronaut, however, and in 1968 he somehow managed to get to the USA on a student visa—at just 18 years old, speaking almost no English with just US$50 in his pocket. Within the decade, he had earned his PhD in applied plasma physics from MIT, was already in the early stages of developing VASIMR, and would soon become the first naturalized citizen selected by NASA to become an astronaut. He would go on to fly seven shuttle missions, tying him for the most-traveled astronaut in US history.
While his story is well known in Costa Rica (where an animatronic Franklin Chang-Diaz inspires young Ticos to study their science at the National Children’s Museum), many people in the USA don’t even realize how much of their own space program currently relies on research done in the dry tropical forests of Costa Rica. NASA, however, is intimately involved with Ad Astra, and the Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Hall of Fame has finally seen fit to recognize the Tico prodigy.
Along with four-star general Kevin Chilton, the highest ranking astronaut ever, and Charles Precourt, former chief of the astronaut corps, Franklin Chang-Diaz will be honored at the Kennedy Space Center this May. Por fin!
While it is possible to visit Ad Astra in Costa Rica, located on the campus of Earth University, special reservations must be made well in advance. Contact them for more information.