Space Explorer: Franklin Chang-Díaz

The Boy NASA Couldn't Keep On Earth

By Joesph DAgnese
Nov 8, 2003 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:12 AM


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Franklin Chang-Díaz remembers the day his mother told him that a new star soared in the sky. The year was 1957, and the Soviets had just launched a basketball-size satellite named Sputnik, which triggered the space race. The news captivated the 7-year-old boy, who grew up in Venezuela and Costa Rica. “I was lucky to have a set of parents who paid attention to such events,” he says. “That launch was so powerful for all humanity.”

Photograph by Amanda Friedman

From that moment forward, Chang-Díaz lived for space. Cardboard boxes became his rocket ships, his kid cousins his intrepid crew. He listened to news of the first manned spaceflights on the radio. When a museum exhibit touting U.S. efforts in nuclear power came to San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, every afternoon Chang-Díaz rushed to the San José International Airport, where the display was located, to learn more about using atoms for energy. In high school, inspired by a NASA brochure titled "So You Want to Be a Rocket Scientist," Chang-Díaz wrote a letter of inquiry, but Houston fired back a crushing reply: NASA careers were open only to U.S. citizens.

“It drove me crazy,” Chang-Díaz says. “Even today it does. Why would they encourage us to be rocket scientists if we couldn’t be? Space exploration is a worldwide endeavor, and the fact that the United States is on top doesn’t mean they should be the only ones in it.”

The letter was curt, but it did not dampen his resolve. “It just made it clear to me that I had to come to the United States,” he says. “After high school, I got a job in a bank to save money. I told everyone that I was going to go to the United States to become a rocket scientist and an astronaut. Everyone laughed.”

More than 30 years later, there is nothing to laugh about. With single-minded determination, Chang-Díaz has nailed every one of his dreams. He has flown seven shuttle missions, a record equaled only by one other NASA astronaut, Jerry Ross. As the first Hispanic American to go into space, Chang-Díaz is regarded as a hero in Costa Rica. He also became a rocket scientist, and his research in fusion fuel physics may well help get us to Mars one day.

At no point in his childhood did any of this seem possible. His mother, a housewife, feared her son would end up in the Vietnam War if he immigrated to the United States. His father, a construction-site foreman and the son of a Chinese immigrant to Central America, had a different perspective: Immigration was a fact of life; you went where the jobs were. Moved by his son’s efforts at the bank, the elder Chang-Díaz bought him a one-way ticket to America, and the young man went to live with relatives in Connecticut.

Chang-Díaz pocketed all the money he had saved in nine months-$50-and headed for Hartford, where he quickly persuaded school administrators to put him in the high school’s senior class. “Of course I didn’t speak English,” he says, “but I knew it would only be a matter of time. I worked hard at that. I tried not to hang out with Spanish-speaking kids. I got an American girlfriend. As my language skills improved, my grades shot up.”

He was awarded a four-year college scholarship, but the day he showed up at the University of Connecticut, he was confronted with a familiar objection. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, sorry. We can’t give it to you. You’re not an American citizen. We made a mistake.’ You see, they thought I was Puerto Rican, not Costa Rican.” The embarrassment was enough to persuade state officials to grant him a one-year scholarship. That was all he needed: He landed a job in the physics lab and worked his way through school. “How’s that for luck?” he says. “That was one of the most American things that ever happened to me. Here there’s a mind-set that if you work hard, you usually get what you want. It’s still a land of opportunity.”

In 1977 Chang-Díaz finally became an American citizen. Working then as a fusion physicist at the Draper Laboratory at MIT, he saw this achievement as just another step toward the goal that consumed him still: a career as an astronaut. He had applied for the space shuttle program before he got his citizenship and had been rejected; on this second round, he was summoned to Houston for a battery of interviews and tests. The visit was marked by some fanfare because it was the first time a naturalized citizen had ever been considered for the job of astronaut.

And yet months went by without an answer. Then one day in 1980, as he sat in a colleague’s office describing an idea for a superhot, superfast fusion rocket, Chang-Díaz was paged. “Dr. Chang-Díaz,” the caller said, “you have been selected to become a space shuttle astronaut. Do you want the job?”

“What kind of question is that?” Chang-Díaz asks rhetorically, recalling the moment. “I was so excited that I started pacing in circles and wrapped the phone cord around my superior’s neck.”

Six years later, he flew for the first time on a six-day, 96-orbit mission during which he helped deploy a satellite, conduct experiments in astrophysics, and run an onboard materials processing lab. “I had lots of powerful emotions,” he says, recalling that first trip. “When you get to space, as soon as you feel the float, you want to do two things. You want to unstrap because even though you train for zero gravity, you never know exactly what it’s like until you’re in it. The second thing you want to do is look out the window. That’s what blows you away-to see Earth from that point. I’ve flown many times now, and the feeling is always the same.”

Today Chang-Díaz devotes his time to perfecting the rocket engine he first conceived two decades ago. In a lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston, he and his team use hydrogen gas to generate enormous heat. “In space,” Chang-Díaz likes to say, “heat means fast.” Zapped by radio waves, hydrogen atoms lose their electrons and are transformed into a plasma as hot as the sun. This gaseous mass-the fourth state of matter, found in lightning, nebulas, and stars-reaches 1 million degrees Fahrenheit; it can melt any container devised by man. Only magnetic fields tame plasma. With massive electromagnets attached to the exterior of the plasma chamber, his team can lead the hydrogen gas plasma as easily as a pup on a leash, harnessing 1 million degrees of energy to a single unalterable goal: powering a spacecraft to Mars and beyond.

Chang-Díaz hopes that NASA will use his engine to help boost the International Space Station into orbit by 2006. (The station’s low orbit takes it through the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. The drag slows it down, causing its orbit to decay, so it must be lifted and repositioned.) If the system works well, it will be used for later missions to outer planets. “We measure the performance of a rocket in seconds,” he explains. “If the shuttle comes in at 500 seconds, this engine has 30,000 seconds. The space shuttle is unsuitable to go to Mars. It’s an oxcart compared to what we can do.”

You could say that brilliant, unswerving energy is the story of Chang-Díaz’s life. Back in Costa Rica, all schoolchildren know the name Chang-Díaz. His face recently appeared on a stamp, and a pair of biologists named a new species of rain forest beetle in his honor. His mother, Maria Eugenia Díaz de Chang, visits schools to tell how she once lit the flame of fascination that sent a young man to the stars. Chang-Díaz himself works to make sure the young have a chance: He aggressively seeks out graduate students from all over the world to help design the technology his lab uses.

Chang-Díaz may be in his sixties when this planet finally sends a person to Mars, but he still hopes to be tapped for the mission: “Astronauts get better with age.”

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