Former NASA astronaut's Space Shuttle flights inspired new hydrogen technologies
Former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz logged more than 1,600 hours in space before retiring from the US space agency in 2005.
During that time he spent almost 20 hours performing spacewalks and helped to build the International Space Station (ISS). Chang Díaz made history by becoming the first Hispanic NASA astronaut when he launched to space aboard NASA's Space Shuttle.
In 2015, the former astronaut founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company, which aims to build a functioning nuclear electric propulsion engine called VASIMR that could reduce travel times to Mars while improving payload capacity for future spacecraft.
In an interview with IE last month, Chang Díaz explained how his time in space altered his worldview and how his company aims to use its expertise in space technology to help fight climate change.
Ad Astra's mission partly inspired by the Overview Effect
Space travel is known to trigger a well-documented psychological phenomenon in humans known as the Overview Effect, whereby a person viewing the Earth from space undergoes a life-altering cognitive shift. Viewing Earth in its entirety makes astronauts more concerned with the fragility of our planet and the harm that human beings are causing the environment.
In his interview with IE, Chang Díaz explained how space travel affected him personally and helped guide his work with Ad Astra.
Astronauts tend to "become much more focused on the planet and on planetary dynamics, rather than the dynamics of the local community they came from or the country they came from," Chang Díaz explained. "We’re no longer really citizens of a country, we're citizens of a planet."
"When you're out there, the Earth is in front of you in its wholeness, and it's unavoidable to see the planet as a whole and not realize that we are all really astronauts," he continued, "we are all really crew members in this tiny little spaceship, and we're really messing up our life support system."
That experience is a great part of why Chang Díaz's firm, Ad Astra, is now also working on hydrogen-focused renewable energy technologies for Earth. "I tell people the most important system in a spacecraft for astronauts is the life support system," Chang-Díaz said. "If that thing doesn’t work, you die. But we're really messing up our life support system on Earth."
Space Shuttle technology inspired Ad Astra's hydrogen ecosystem
The US and Costa Rica-based company's Ad Astra Energy and Environmental Services (or "AASEA", its acronym in Spanish) is building renewable energy and hydrogen infrastructure throughout Latin America and the world. Those solutions draw from Chang Díaz's time aboard NASA's Space Shuttle. The spacecraft, which operated between 1981 and 2011, housed three fuel cells to power its crew's life support system.
Space Shuttle astronauts used these fuel cells for energy, but they also combined oxygen with the hydrogen from the fuel cells to generate drinking water.
"I was impacted by that because that's the kind of thing we need to do here on Earth," Chang-Díaz told IE. "And so, in our facility here in Costa Rica, we are basically implementing that same ecosystem for hydrogen production from the electrolysis of water, using renewable energy — sun, wind, and hydroelectric."
Ad Astra has built a large hydrogen ecosystem where it uses hydrogen-electric vehicles to transport the hydrogen it produces via electrolysis. The hydrogen can be used to store renewable energy, which can go to waste due to the intermittency of solar and wind energy. The firm also uses the same process to produce drinking water as a byproduct.
"The sun is sending us huge amounts of energy, every single day, all over the planet," Chang Díaz explained. "Most of it, we just let it go by and we don't even use it. And then we have an energy crisis. We're digging holes in the ground to get natural gas and petroleum. We're just polluting our atmosphere instead of using all this energy that's coming to us, reliably, every single day."
Have a read of the full interview with Chang Díaz to learn more about the former astronaut's experience in space, as well as the nuclear electric VASIMR engine the firm is aiming to transition into flight readiness in the coming months and years.
The Space Shuttle Challenger fragment "was not our only big find this season."