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Chang-Díaz, Franklin R.: 1950—

Franklin R. Chang-Díaz: 1950: Astronaut, physicist

As one of the first Hispanic Americans to fly in space, astronaut and physicist Franklin R. Chang-Díaz has participated in seven space shuttle missions. He is a specialist in applied plasma physics and fusion technology, and has worked on experiments aboard the space shuttle that, it is hoped, will lead to signifi-cant improvements in the manufacture of medicines. His current research at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which focuses on plasma propulsion technology, is expected to contribute toward achieving workable methods for human space flights to Mars.

Advice from von Braun

Franklin R. Chang-Díaz was born on April 5, 1950, in San Josè, Costa Rica. His father, Ramòn Chang, was an oil worker whose own father had escaped China during the Boxer Rebellion. "I'm not only Hispanic, but I'm part Chinese," the astronaut explained to Boston Globe writer Peggy Hernandez. "To define me only as Hispanic is too narrow." One of six children, Chang-Díaz wanted to become an astronaut since he was seven. He told Hernandez that he used to sit outside the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica listening to radio broadcasts between Houston mission control and the Mercury and Gemini space crews. "I knew the names of all the astronauts," he said, "[b]ut I thought, 'Who is this guy Roger? Boy, this guy is lucky. He gets to go on all the flights.'" With his cousins, Chang-Díaz would often play astronaut, using an empty cardboard box in the yard as a space ship. "I would count down. The spaceship would lift off and we would land on a planet," he told Hernandez. "Then, we would get out and we would explore the new world."

After the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, Chang-Díaz wrote a letter in Spanish to scientist Werner von Braun, the leading rocket researcher of the time, who was then living in the United States after an earlier career developing the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. The boy asked for advice on how to become an astronaut, and von Braun recommended that he study math and science, but learn these subjects in English and in the United States. After completing high school in Costa Rica, Chang-Díazwho had saved fifty dollars for the purposemoved to Connecticut to further his education. He lived in Hartford with an uncle and cousins, but spoke no English and had insufficient academic credits to gain admission to an American university. So he enrolled in transitional classes at Hartford High School, graduating in 1969 and earning a scholarship to the University of Connecticut. There he obtained a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1973. In 1977 he completed his doctorate in plasma physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

At a Glance . . .

Born April 5, 1950, in San Josè, Costa Rica; son of Ramòn A. Chang and Maria Eugenia Díaz; married Peggy Marguerite Doncaster; four children. Education: University of Connecticut, B.S. in mechanical engineering, 1973; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sc.D. in applied plasma physics, 1977.

Career: Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, researcher, 1977-83; MIT Plasma Fusion Center, visiting scientist, 1983-93; Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson Space Center, director, 1993. Selected as astronaut by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 1980, veteran of seven space missions, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002; founded Astronaut Science Colloquium Program, 1987; cofounder and director, Astronaut Science Support Group, 1987-89. Adjunct professor of physics, Rice University and University of Houston.

Awards: Outstanding Alumni Award, University of Connecticut, 1980; NASA Space Flight Medals, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998; NASA Distinguished Service Medals, 1995, 1997; NASA Exceptional Service Medals, 1988, 1990, 1993; Liberty Medal, awarded by President Ronald Reagan, 1986; Medal of Excellence, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1987; Cross of the Venezuelan Air Force, 1988; Flight Achievement Award, American Astronautical Society, 1989; honorary doctorates from Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, University of Connecticut, Babson College, and Universidade de Santiago de Chile; honorary faculty, College of Engineering, University of Costa Rica; "Honorary Citizen", government of Costa Rica, 1995; Wyld Propulsion Award, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2001; Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference Hall of Fame, 2001.

Address: Office National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77058.

While still an undergraduate, Chang-Díaz was part of a research team that developed experiments involving high energy atomic collisions. During his graduate studies at MIT, he worked on the U.S. controlled fusion program, with particular focus on the design and function of fusion reactors. After earning his Ph.D. in applied plasma physics, he joined the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, where he continued research on fusion reactor technology. His innovations there included a new concept for guiding and targeting fuel pellets inside a fusion reaction chamber.

Chosen by NASA

In May of 1980 Chang-Díaz was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for its elite astronaut corpsone of only 19 chosen from 3,000 applicants. He became an astronaut in August of 1981 and flew six space shuttle missions between 1986 and 1998. During his astronaut training at NASA, Chang-Díaz worked on flight software checkout at the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. He also contributed to early design studies for the Space Station. In 1982 he was named to the support crew for the first Spacelab mission, and in 1983 was an orbit capsule communicator for that flight. In addition to his research at NASA, Chang-Díaz was active in astronaut support services.

Chang-Díaz founded the Astronaut Science Colloquium Program in January of 1987. This program worked on building closer relationships between astronauts and scientists. Another organization, the Astronaut Science Support Group, was launched with Chang-Díaz's help in 1988. Its purpose, according to a NASA release, was to improve data return and simplify equipment repairs in space by utilizing the expertise of astronauts who have flown Space Shuttle missions. The group also advised the National Space Transportation System and the Space Station programs on science and technology issues. Chang-Díaz served as director of the group until January of 1989.

On January 12, 1986, Chang-Díaz began his first flight mission, STS 61-C. On this flight, the Space Shuttle Columbia completed 96 orbits of earth and launched the SATCOM KU satellite. Chang-Díaz participated in the deployment of the satellite and conducted experiments in astrophysics; he also operated the materials processing laboratory. The Columbia landed safely on January 18, 1986.

Chang-Díaz's next flight was STS-34 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. On this mission, which was launched on October 18, 1989, the crew deployed the Galileo spacecraft, which was programmed to explore the planet Jupiter. The crew also operated the Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet Instrument to map ozone in the earth's atmosphere, and conducted various other experiments. The mission completed 79 orbits of earth and landed on October 23, 1989. On STS-46, also aboard the Atlantis, Chang-Díaz and other crew members launched the European Retrievable Carrier satellite and tested the first Tethered Satellite System. This mission involved 126 orbits of earth and lasted eight days, from July 31 to August 8, 1992.

In 1994 Chang-Díaz began his fourth mission, STS-60, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. This was the first joint U.S.-Russian Space Shuttle mission to include a Russian cosmonaut as a crew member. It was also the first flight of the Wake Shield Facility and the second flight of the Space Habitation Module-2. On this flight, Chang-Díaz participated in several experiments involving biological materials, earth observation, and life science. The Discovery completed 130 orbits of earth on this mission and landed on February 11, 1994.

Chang-Díaz's next flight was STS-75, which completed 252 orbits of earth in 1996. On this mission, the shuttle crew conducted additional Tethered Satellite System experiments, showing that tethers produce electricity and provided researchers with much new information about the electrodynamics of tethers and plasma physics. Other research, on the U.S. Micro-gravity Payload, provided data helpful in the improvement of the production of medicines, metal alloys, and semiconductors. The mission completed 252 orbits of earth in fifteen days.

On STS-91 in 1998, Chang-Díaz was a mission specialist. This was the ninth and final Shuttle-Mir docking mission, concluding the first phase of the joint US-Russian Space Shuttle program. Chang-Díaz and other Discovery crew members conducted resupply of the Russian space station Mir, and also ran experiments on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which was the first research of its kind on antimatter in space.

Chang-Díaz's most recent flight, STS-111, was launched on June 5, 2002 and was the seventh space mission for the astronauttying a record set by Jerry Ross in April of 2002. "I'm just getting started," Chang-Díaz commented in an article on "I'm hoping that these kinds of records will be easily broken many times over." During the 12-day mission, Chang-Díaz participated in three space walks.

Used Space Technology for Improving Drugs

An interesting aspect of Chang-Díaz's work in space is its possible role in finding new treatments for diseases. In 1991, while in Costa Rica to promote more Latin American participation in space projects, Chang-Díaz met with Dr. Jose Zaglul, president of Earth University in Mercedes, Costa Rica. They began discussing the potential that tropical rainforests might have for the discovery of new drugs, including a possible cure for Chagas's disease, a malady caused by the parasite Trypanosoma that kills some 45,000 people a year, mostly in Latin America. Because the microgravity of space creates ideal conditions for the production of crystalsthe basic structure of some drugsChang-Díaz theorized that the space shuttle could become an important lab for testing components of and treatments for Chagas's disease. He persuaded NASA biochemist Dr. Lawrence J. DeLucas to help him develop and run experiments on the shuttle relevant to the disease. On STS-75, they attempted to study a protein made by the Chagas parasite, but did not have enough time to complete the experiment. Astronauts on four later flights, however, crystallized extracts of an enzyme produced in the disease and researched compounds that could be successful in treating it.

This type of research, Chang-Díaz believed, will provide other kinds of benefits as wellincluding increased access for Latin-American countries to space technology. "The people of these countries may not have a lot of money," he said in a New York Times article, "but they have brain power. In Latin America's political environment, the correlation between economic development and access to space technology is not yet seen. But the Chagas project could change that." In addition, the project could lead to other innovations. "There is a great connection between the rain forest, biodiversity, and space," Chang-Díaz continued. "Earth University is developing revolutionary techniques for agriculture that take advantage of environmental conditions to grow crops in the framework of environmental wholeness. That's exactly what we must do on long-term duration space missions."

Travel to Mars

Chang-Díaz's research on plasma rocket engines could lead to technology that would significantly reduce the amount of time required to travel from Earth to Mars. With current technology, based on chemical propulsion, rockets can achieve a speed of only 10,000 miles per hour; this would make a trip to Mars take at least ten months each way. Higher rocket speeds could be reached if the spacecraft's propellant were super-heatedbut this, Chang-Díaz has pointed out, would cause the rocket to melt. But the variable specific impulse magnetic resonance (VASIMR) propulsion system, on which Chang-Díaz has worked for more than 20 years, avoids this problem by using magnetic fields to contain and guide the propellant gases. Chang-Díaz described the process, in a New York Times article, as "like a microwave oven."

With the VASIMR engine, rockets could achieve speeds of 650,000 miles per hour. At the same time, Chang-Díaz explained, VASIMR's superior fuel efficiency would significantly reduce the weight of the space-craftand therefore the high cost of space missions. He has calculated that a VASIMRpowered mission to Mars, including one spacecraft for astronauts and another for supplies, would weigh only about 400 tons half the weight of an earlier design for a Mars mission. VASIMR technology could cut the time of a mission from Earth to Mars from ten months to only 93 days. Though VASIMR is not the only propulsion system being considered by NASA, Chang-Díaz said in the New York Times that "I think it's the technology that's going to take us to Mars." The VASIMR propulsion system could be operational for a Mars mission by 2018.

Active in promoting support for space programs, especially in Latin America, Chang-Díaz has also participated in community service work. He spent two and a half years as a house manager in an experimental residence for chronic mental patients who were being released from institutionalized care. He has also worked as an instructor and advisor for a Massachusetts rehabilitation program for Hispanic drug abusers. Chang-Díaz travels widely in the United States, Mexico, and Latin America, speaking on the importance of sharing space-age technologies with developing nations.



Boston Globe, January 3, 1986, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1997, pp. B1, 5.

MIT Tech Talk, February 3, 1999.

New York Times, June 20, 2000, p. D5; November 28, 2000, p. D8.


Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference,

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, astronaut biography,

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, STS-111 information,

Elizabeth Shostak

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