The Evolved Man of the Week: Franklin Chang Diaz

Welcome to the Evolving Man Project’s “Evolved Man of the Week” profile. Each week we will highlight an individual that embodies what it means to be an evolved person, famous and non-famous individual alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to physicists, Adjunct Professor in Physics and Astronomy at Rice University, CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company, and retired NASA Astronaut Franklin Change Diaz.

Franklin Ramón Chang Díaz was born in San José, Costa Rica on April 5, 1950, to a Costa Rican father of Chinese descent, Ramón Ángel Chang Morales, an oil worker whose own father fled China during the Boxer Rebellion. His mother is also Costa Rican, María Eugenia Díaz Romero.  In 1967 his parents sent him from Costa Rica to live with relatives in Connecticut. He earned a bachelor’s degree (1973) in mechanical engineering at the University of Connecticut and a doctorate (1977) in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1980 Chang-Díaz was selected to participate in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut program. He made seven spaceflights. His first mission was aboard the space shuttle Columbia in January 1986. Other shuttle flights included the Atlantis mission in October 1989, which deployed the Galileo spacecraft that explored Jupiter, and the June 2002 flight of Endeavour, during which he participated in three spacewalks to help repair the robotic arm of the International Space Station. Chang-Díaz was a visiting scientist (1983–93) at MIT, where he led a project that developed plasma propulsion for use in human flights to Mars. He served as director of NASA’s Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston from 1993 until 2005 when he retired from the agency.

After leaving NASA, Chang Díaz set up the Ad Astra Rocket Company, which became dedicated to developing advanced plasma rocket propulsion technology. Years of research and development have produced the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), an electrical propulsion device for use in space. With a flexible mode of operation, the rocket can achieve very high exhaust speeds, and with a sufficiently powerful electrical supply, even has the theoretical capability to take a crewed rocket to Mars in 39 days.

Chang Díaz also is active in environmental protection and raising awareness about climate change, notably in his role in Odyssey 2050 The Movie, in which he encourages young people to get motivated about environmental issues.

In 1986, Franklin Chang Díaz was one of twelve recipients of the Medal of Liberty. He was inducted into the NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 5, 2012, in a ceremony in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Due to his career and scientific success, he has been decorated multiple times in Costa Rica and named Honor Citizen by the national legislature. The Costa Rican National High Technology Center (CeNAT), among other institutions, is named after him. In 2014, Chang Díaz was awarded the “Buzz Aldrin Quadrennial Space Award” by The Explorers Club. Buzz Aldrin, whom Chang Díaz called a childhood hero, presented the award.

Here is Mr. Chang Diaz’s own words about bridging the gap between scientist and military fighter pilots at NASA. Where he become one of the first scientists and first Latinos to become an astronaut:

Young people often ask me if I’m a scientist or an astronaut, and I say that I’m both. But in the early days of spaceflight, people tended to be one or the other. The astronauts were military men, and the rocket scientists designed the rockets, but they never got to fly.

That division was an obstacle for me at NASA. When I first started, it was clear that being a scientist made you less likely to fly. But that didn’t seem right to me, and I kept working to remain both a scientist and an astronaut.

In the end, I won out. I remained a scientist, and I flew more than anybody else.

Throughout my years in the astronaut corps, I think I helped bridge that gap. Obviously, both personality parts are important—having military discipline is just as important as having an inquisitive mind, a formally trained, scientific mind. What I’ve done to prove that those qualities can fit together in one person is one of the most satisfying accomplishments in my 25 years in the space program.

Today we honor Franklin Chang-Diaz as our Evolved Man of the Week.

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