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Franklin Chang-Diaz - Ad Astra Rocket Co.

Franklin Chang-Diaz

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As a child in Costa Rica, Franklin Chang-Diaz was captivated by Sputnik, knowing in his heart that one day he would fly in space. And he did—no one has flown more shuttle missions than he. That little boy followed his dreams to become a mechanical engineer, physicist, an astronaut, and he is now president and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Co. Who better to lead the commercialization of space flight? Chang-Diaz has designed a new generation of plasma-powered rockets that could change the future of in-space travel. Sound incredible? It is. Don’t miss this interview!

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Russ: This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com. Our topic now is the commercialization of space flight, specifically here rocket engines because my guest is Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz, the Founder, the Inventor and the CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company; Franklin, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.

Franklin: Oh thank you, thank you; pleasure to be here.

Russ: You bet. So tell us about Ad Astra Rocket Company.

Franklin: Okay. Well, Ad Astra really is a very young company. We started about seven years ago and we used to be part of NASA. Uh, most of the work that we do really had its genesis at NASA. But then we privatized and now we are running on a - on private investment and are on our own.

Russ: Okay. And you expect and hope to find customers for this unbelievable plasma rocket engine that you're developing.

Franklin: We believe there is going to be a huge market for transportation and - and, um, efficient and - and fairly inexpensive transportation in space. Right now what we're seeing is the wave of those who want to go into space, to lift off from the earth but once you get into space, then you want to go somewhere and what we want to do is be in that niche to be able to provide, uh, that service.

Russ: Okay. Now, I know that you were born and grew up in Costa Rica I know also you came to the United States after you turned 18 and you wanted to be one of these guys that goes into space; you wanted to be an astronaut, right?

Franklin: I was a product of the space age, uh, at the very, very beginning, you know I can remember when Sputnik was launched. And many of us young children at the time were captivated by the bug of space. And I always wanted to be an astronaut and I always felt that an astronaut and a rocket scientist were really both the same.

Russ: Same thing; you thought you had to be a rocket scientist to be an astronaut.

Franklin: In a way that is true and I guess over time we have come to realize that a lot of the explorers are going to end up being scientists as well, so.

Russ: Right, right, really cool. Well, and when it comes to those that want to go to space, my goodness, I didn't know this on my way down for the interview but you and another astronaut named Jerry Ross have the most trips on the shuttle to space than anybody and as I understand it, it's seven trips which is what's displayed behind us here.

Franklin: Seven missions, that's correct.

Russ: Seven missions, my goodness. And were all of them to the International Space Station?

Franklin: No, actually, um, I was very fortunate. I was able to fly when there was nothing to fly to, uh, and at the early days of the shuttle and then I have - had a chance to go the Russian M.I.R. and I spent some time on the Russian, uh, station M.I.R. and then later on, uh, supported the construction of the International Space Station. So I got a chance to go every - to all the places that we go these days except for the moon and flew virtually all the space shuttles except for Challenger which we - of course we lost.

Russ: Right, and so you must have been flying in the period of time you started flying before Challenger.

Franklin: Actually I started on the program in 1980 when the shuttle hadn't really flown yet and I was just fortunate; I was at the right place at the right time, I spent 25 years and it was over the entire life of the shuttle program.

Russ: Okay, and did you enjoy all of these missions?

Franklin: Oh it was absolutely awesome. I had a chance to do just about everything that an astronaut would love to do - like to do; fly in space, uh, do science and walk in space and do all of the things that you - that you see on T.V., that you, you know, that you understand astronauts do.

Russ: Well that's so fantastic and impressive. So what was it that motivated you to think hey, well now that it's kind of becoming more of a commercial opportunity I want to get in the business and I want to get into the rocket engine business? What - what was that?

Franklin: Well, there is, um, there is a point of inflection that you have to be kind of attune to, attentive to, uh, which is when you have finished, uh, all of the basic research that gives you the foundations of a new piece of technology, now it's time to move it out into the private sector and be fairly quick and fairly efficient in the use of resources so that you can, um, bring it to fruition; and this is what the phase in which we are in. We are now, um, pretty much done with the physics part, we are now into the engineering of it and so at the end of the day our product will be a rocket engine which is - we believe will transform the way people travel in space.

Russ: Okay, now I've had the opportunity to tour and get the explanation of - of the engine; in fact the engine - yours is called the VASIMR which stands for?

Franklin: It's an acronym; Variable Specific Impulse Magneto Plasma Rocket, a real mouthful. It has a lot of features that are very new in rockets. Um, we, um - uh, deal with plasma, we don't use chemicals like typical rockets today (05:41-Russ: right); we use electricity to heat a working fluid, a gas and elevate that temperature to millions of degrees. In a rocket the hotter the exhaust the better the rocket (05:55-Russ: okay), the more efficient it is; so that's where we go.

Russ: Okay, and as I understand it, it's a rocket engine that you use after you're out of the earth's atmosphere

Franklin: That's correct, the VASIMR is not used to lift off from Earth or from any other planet, the VASIMR is really an in space propulsion; it's what we call In Space Propulsion. You've got to get there first with a conventional chemical rocket and then the VASIMR comes in to drive you the rest of the way.

Russ: Okay and - and therefore the - the fuel load is very minimal compared to these rockets that we see that blast off from Earth?

Franklin: That's right. Fuel consumption with chemical rockets is very, very, high and so what you see in the launch pad is mostly fuel. The engine is rather small, the little capsule where the astronauts go is really rather small, most of the ship is just a fuel tank and it turns out to be very expensive to do business that way. So what you really want is to use your fuel more frugally, you want to use it, uh, less at higher, um, exhaust velocity; so you shoot material out the back at a higher speed but you shoot less of it.

Russ: All right, and it really propels the - the rocket at a much higher speed.

Franklin: Yeah, in the end, um, you know, you always have a choice; you either shoot a lot of material at low speed low temperature, or you shoot a little tiny bit of material at very high temperature, very high speed. And that is what we do and of course a bag of fuel will last you a long time.

Russ: Right. And what's the status today of the VASIMR rocket?

Franklin: Okay. Well we have a prototype, uh, running in a vacuum chamber here in our facility which is 200 kilowatts in power. It is the most powerful plasma engine in operation in the world today and that prototype is the - the engine that will give us the - the working knowledge to build a flight unit. So we're now moving into the design of the flight unit which we hope to have ready in about 3 years from now.

Russ: Okay, and here, right here at your facility you - you have built this engine and you tested in this large vacuum, uh, and you te-have tested it many times now, correct?

Franklin: Yeah, we fired this engine, uh, more than 10,000 times and it is extraordinary the way how repeatable it is. We fire and, the firing is pretty much the same every - time and again. What we are interested in is not longer than we start it and turn it one, but what we're interested in is how long will it last? What are the failure modes, uh, how does it wear; you know, what components - how do they last? Um, and that - those experiments are the next phase of activity in our - in our project and, uh, we have another facility in - another laboratory in my home country of Costa Rica where we are looking at those long term effects of operation of the engine.

Russ: All right, and we're going to be back with more with Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz after this presentation of some real cool photos at the back end of this place. This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com. This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com and continuing on with Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz. Now Franklin, this is a business, you know, and you're a scientist and astronaut, but now you're operating a business.

Franklin: That's right and it really is a change for me. I spent twenty-five years as a scientist as a government employee of NASA, and then all of a sudden, you know, you are thrust into this position of leading a company and you, you know, I have to say that I don't get to do much science these days and I have to manage; budgets, I have to manage personnel, I have to look at, uh, strategic plans and I have to, you know business plans and set up alliances. It's a lot of things that go into making the business run which go much beyond the rocket science.

Russ: Right. So how many employees do you have now?

Franklin: Right now we have, uh, about twenty people here in our facility and, uh, about fifteen or so in the Costa Rica facility so we're still a very small company. The make up of the group here is mostly scientists, uh, and we're trying to gradually build up the business side of the house. Uh, we just hired a new manager for strategic planning and he'll come in probably beginning of, uh, this coming year and, uh, we have, um, investment support in Costa Rica; uh, advisors who tell us give us ideas of how to best proceed.

Russ: Which means - which means you might - you have some investment funds that have come from Costa Rica.

Franklin: Actually we do. It's amazing to me to see the amount of resources that have come from that tiny little country, a country of four million people, you know, you wouldn't expect a country like Costa Rica to be interested in space but they are.

Russ: Well I understand that they have a hero in you, man, gaw, you…

Franklin: Well Costa Rica is a very unique place. It's a very peaceful country, it's very well educated, it's very well advanced and it has all of the trappings of the pieces that you need to make a technology presence. And today I believe that because of the changes in communications, in the ability to transfer information back and forth all over the planet, there is no magic, you know, monopoly of knowledge on the earth.

Russ: And isn't that cool.

Franklin: You can do science just about anywhere you choose to.

Russ: Really, really neat. So - and you still are fundraising, is that right?

Franklin: Always. We always we're now more self sufficient than we were before because now the company has diversified, we've moved into - a little bit into the energy - into the renewable energy field and we are farming out some of our technologies that come from the rocket, but these are technologies that have applications on the earth and so we're beginning - beginning to generate some revenue.

Russ: Well, eh, revenue - I mean, you know, uh this audience relates to revenue, uh, and knows how important it is and I know you know how important it is, uh, we talked earlier today about some of the - the - a huge test that's gonna take place in space in the not too distant future and then we talked about a couple of actual applications where you - you would have customers paying you for your right - share that with our audience.

Franklin: Yes, we have a number of, um, we call them business lines or, business, areas. One of them is kind of unique, it really is the - the job of pushing the International Space Station. The International Space Station is a very large object which is moving, uh, at a very high speed, very close to the edge of the atmosphere and it feels a slight drag from the atmosphere; very tiny, very tiny drag, but enough that over, uh, months the altitude drops, so the station gradually falls. Every few months a rocket has to go a push it to give it more speed so that it can climb some more.

Russ: Well is that a ro-today is that a rocket that's attached to it or is it something that's delivered and attached or is it?

Franklin: Both in cases the station has its own thrusters but they do have to be fed with rocket fuel so you have to get a tanker there to feed it to fill up the tanks. In other cases a, uh, separate rocket goes and docks and pushes it. But in either case you have to spend rocker fuel to do that and typically it costs about thirty thousand dollars per kilogram of rocket fuel to launch it up into space and so you quickly do the math seven thousand kilos of rocket fuel are needed to keep the station in orbit for one year. And so multiply times thirty thousand that's two hundred and ten million dollars and somebody has to pay that money. And we calculate the performance of our rocket, we do the same job for about three hundred - just over three hundred kilograms of Argon gas which at the same price work out to about roughly just over ten million dollars. It's a huge difference. So you can see there the business margin is very interesting. The other one is the satellite servicing. You can, um, I guess we've heard a lot about all these orbital debris, junk space that's orbiting the earth, these are dead satellites that have been orbiting for years and they're gradually, you know, getting more and more numerous. And so at some point they do collide and they create, uh, debris that is itself a hazard yes. And so the need is to get rid of these, uh, orbiting objects, some of them we bring them down control so that they fall and they burn in the atmosphere and they fall in the ocean. Others we simply move up to higher orbits, out of the way of the, you know, incoming traffic or the - the moving traffic and eventually we will have to get rid of - if these orbits get too full, we gotta get rid of them and maybe send them to the sun as a ultimate disposal.

Russ: And this is a mission that your rocket could play a roll in?

Franklin: Basically you need a garbage truck and, you know, the fact that we have a garbage truck that uses a, uh, VSIMR engine, uh, we're not proud, you know, we're perfectly happy if we can make the business go. So we see that as, uh, another potential area. We also see, um, traffic models of things that have to go to the moon, NASA is interested in, uh, deep space habitats. These habitats have to be supported with fuel, with water, uh, supplies and so we see a business opportunity there as well.

Russ: Okay, because you could more efficiently and more quickly travel deep into space.

Franklin: We would be in the trucking in the trucking business. I mean, it really is that simple is the trucking business and we to do that are developing essentially the big diesel engine that powers all these big trucks in our highways. Right now the engines that, uh, are available are either too gas guzzling, you know, you don't want sports cars driving your hardware - or very low powered devices. And the low power, uh, engines are just too puny, too little tiny too tiny to be able to do the job.

Russ: Cool, really cool. Well Franklin I really appreciate you sharing your story with us on The BusinessMakers Show. It's exciting and, uh, I think there's a lot of us that are in The BusinessMakers group that love to see the commercialization of space flight but question, my goodness, can it be done and I think you're proving it can be done.

Franklin: Thank you, it's a pleasure to have been here.

Russ: That's Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz, the inventor of the VASIMR engine, the Founder of Ad Astra Rocket Company and this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com.

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