Jan 152011
 
Artist's rendition of a future spacecraft that...

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Plasma rocket engine could revolutionize space travel

Former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz explains how his plasma rocket engine could revolutionize space travel and why we need nuclear power in space.

Since the dawn of the Space Age in the mid-20th century, humans have visited the Moon, built orbital telescopes and space stations, and sent robots to explore the vast majority of the solar system’s real estate. Today, many developed nations are charting ambitious courses for their space programs. Some aim to send humans back to the Moon; others simply want to create their own national networks of communications and surveillance satellites. The US has developed plans to build a lunar base and to send astronauts to nearby asteroids, perhaps even to Mars. Yet surprisingly, almost all of these past, present, and planned achievements call for using rocket technology largely based on old ideas from the 1920s.

Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz believes there’s a better, more modern way of doing business in space. And unlike many other starry-eyed space-age dreamers, Chang has considerable clout to back him up. A former NASA astronaut, he’s flown into orbit on a record seven space shuttle missions, including the one that sent the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter. And for the past 30 years, Chang has been developing a concept that could revolutionize space travel and commerce: an advanced plasma rocket engine called VASIMR. After serving as the director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at Johnson Space Center for over a decade, he retired from NASA in 2005 to form Ad Astra Rocket Company, dedicated to developing VASIMR. Ad Astra has since signed agreements with NASA to test VASIMR in space, and has successfully fired a prototype engine at full power on Earth. Seed’s Lee Billings spoke with Dr. Chang about VASIMR, the limitations of conventional rocketry, and his hopes for the future of human space exploration.

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