Iíve always heard that any journey to Mars would require a long trip. Does Franklin Chang-Diaz, a former NASA astronaut, have the means of getting humans there in less than six weeks? He claims he does, by using a rocket that converts hydrogen to plasma.
Between flight training he built a research team to begin work on a plasma rocket, drawing upon NASA engineers and scientists from across the country.
At their essence, rockets are simple: the higher the temperature of the gas shot out the back, the faster the gas and rocket go. Plasmas get hotter than conventional chemical rocket fuel, allowing plasma rockets to go faster on much less fuel.
Over the past three decades, Change-Diaz's group worked on a rocket that could convert hydrogen to a plasma, confine it with a magnetic field and then heat it with radio waves. From 1993 to 2005 he did so as director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center.
After the focus turned to conventional rockets for the Constellation program, Chang-Diaz went private with his ideas. Now that Constellation appears dead, it may be that Chang-Diaz holds the key to success in the newly privatized space program. He expects to begin testing his new engine in only four years, which would put him years ahead of where NASA will be. For those of us who love the space program and who have friends and loved ones involved in it, it may mean that the future of space exploration is not quite so bleak as it was left by Obamaís announced plan to make America a third-tier space program (like he's out to make the US a thid-tier everything else) by mid century.