by Rod D. Martin
April 8, 2015
Currently, the typical time from Earth to Mars is about 260 days: nine long months. Viking 2 took 333 days. That’s a long time if you’re riding in coach.
But Earth to Mars in 39 days? It’s not just something out of a science fiction novel, if the Texas-based Ad Astra Rocket company has anything to say about it. NASA just announced funding for the plasma-based VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) engine, and it may become an integral part of NASA’s plans to put humans on Mars.
It also holds the key to making humanity a true spacefaring civilization.
According to an article at DailyMail.com:
The VASIMR engine – which uses plasma as a propellant – is being developed by the Ad Astra Rocket company in Texas.
Their engine shot to fame a few years ago when it was revealed that it could drastically reduce the journey time to Mars from months to weeks – although it may require a nuclear power source.
And following the successful test of a prototype in 2013, it seems NASA is now considering it for use on a future mission to Mars.
The company will be receiving $10M from NASA, and in just three years the engine could be near space-worthy.
Over three years, NASA will give the company about £6.8 million ($10 million) to get the engine almost ready to fly in space.
This will be achieved with a demonstration of their new prototype, the VX-200-SS, which will be able to fire continuously for more than 100 hours.
A previous test in 2013 saw Ad Astra complete 10,000 successful high power firings of a VASIMR prototype.
This technology dramatically reduces the time it takes to get around our solar system. For perspective, the Mayflower’s voyage took 66 days: people have done this before. And as a result, the prospect of human exploration – and even colonization – of distant worlds has come a lot closer to reality.
All of this is a tribute to the persistence of Franklin Chang Diaz, founder of Ad Astra. Born in Costa Rica of Spanish and Chinese descent, he decided as a child to become an astronaut, but realized that he had to be an American to do so. So at the age of 17 he made his way to America, finished high school, and earned a doctorate in plasma physics at MIT. Along the way he became a U.S. citizen, and three years later, he was selected as an astronaut. He was an astronaut for 25 years.
He started working on the VASIMR engine in the 1970s while a student. He started Ad Astra after retiring from NASA, ten years ago. Only now is his dream becoming a reality.
He refused to accept any limit. He wouldn’t accept barriers that would stop almost anyone. He just wouldn’t quit. Ever.
The best never do. And that’s why Franklin Chang Diaz is going to shape the future of humanity as much or more than the Wright Brothers or Christopher Columbus.