|06SANJOSE1622||2006-07-24 22:14:00||UNCLASSIFIED||Embassy San Jose|
VZCZCXYZ0004 RR RUEHWEB DE RUEHSJ #1622 2052214 ZNR UUUUU ZZH R 242214Z JUL 06 FM AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5652 INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC
UNCLAS SAN JOSE 001622
1. Summary: Costa Rican national hero Franklin Chang, a former NASA
astronaut and dual U.S.-Costa Rican national, recently opened a
local branch of his Ad Astra Technologies Company in Liberia,
Guanacaste, one of the country's poorest regions. The laboratory is
the first of its kind in Central America and will conduct
ground-breaking research in the design and building of a
plasma-propelled rocket. While initial job creation will be limited,
Chang hopes that the economic spin-off effects will be substantial.
The symbolic value of the venture is already manifest. End
2. The rocket Chang hopes to create would be a so-called Variable
Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, or VASIMR. The VASIMR would
use plasma for fuel and the research challenge is to devise a
magnetic field-based technology capable of containing the fuel's
energy. Plasma fuel reaches temperatures measured in the millions
of degrees and thus must be contained within a magnetic canal to
prevent damage to the rest of the vehicle, while harnessing its
energy to propel the rocket through space.
3. Plasma rockets would be extremely cost effective; Chang told
journalists at the opening ceremony that they would be some 300
times more fuel-efficient than current chemical rockets.
Additionally, plasma rockets would have a greater carrying capacity.
Though the rocket initially will be designed for cargo missions,
Chang says he thinks manned missions using the technology will be
feasible in the future.
4. Chang hopes to have the lab fully operational within six months
and plans to present the first VASIMR prototype by the end of 2007.
Pending negotiations with NASA, he hopes to make the first version
of the rocket motor available for the International Space Station by
2008. There the model would be equipped with advanced solar
technology. The first fuel-sustainable model of the VF-200-1 should
be complete by 2010.
5. The scientist's plans for the plasma rocket are ambitious: Chang
envisions the technology enabling the establishment of lunar
stations, Mars travel, possibly even travel to the moons of Jupiter.
Typical of Chang's visionary nature is his expectation that humans
will inhabit the moon by 2018, something that would be sustained by
the type of advanced solar technology that he believes the
Guanacaste lab will help develop.
Benefits for Costa Rica
6. The local project will be managed by Ad Astra Rocket Company, a
subsidiary of Franklin Chang's Ad Astra Technologies, Inc. in
Houston. The research will be shared between the company's two
divisions; Liberia currently is served by numerous daily direct
flights from the U.S. Chang is confident that he will be able to
attract additional venture-capital funding to complete the project,
which has a budget of $150 million.
7. Chang's lab in Liberia will directly employ some 25 people.
However, he hopes the project will spur the high technology sector
throughout the country. Most of the VASIMR's parts will be designed
and manufactured within Costa Rica and the project will also create
jobs for circuit-makers, welders, and solar panel designers.
Additionally, Chang wants Costa Rican universities to collaborate
and train new students to assist with the project.
8. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias joined roughly 500 other
guests from around the world at the opening ceremony for the company
on July 15. He told the audience, which in addition to Costa Rica's
political elite included many of the Nobel-prize winning and other
scientists with whom Chang had worked in his NASA career, that he
welcomed Chang's message of spurring the country's economic
development through technology. "He (Chang) should transport, as
his first passenger, the fear of change so prevalent in Costa Rica."
9. COMMENT: Chang's venture is a first for a country with an
economy based largely on tourism and primary exports, but with a
growing tech sector. Costa Ricans are justly proud of the
achievements of a favorite son and his ambitions for the future.
While clearly born in part of a desire to return something of his
personal success to the country of his birth, Chang's decision to
base a key element of his scientific venture in Costa Rica reflects
also some of the country's comparative advantages in scientific
education and transportation connections. President Arias's
allusion to the project's value as an antidote to Costa Ricans' fear
of change was a clear reference to the looming battle over CAFTA
ratification, and was directed at least in part at one member of the
audience, Otton Solis, Arias's former presidential rival and the
leader of the PAC party that embodies the political opposition to