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NASA Space Science

Ex-Astronaut Developing Plasma Rocket To Revitalize NASA 277

TechReviewAl writes "Former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz believes that the private sector can revitalize NASA, and his company is developing a plasma rocket to back up that claim. Chang Diaz argues that private industry can be used to develop much of the basic technology needed for space exploration, allowing NASA to focus on more sophisticated and critical components. His company, Ad Astra, is developing a variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) that will be used to reposition the International Space Station. Last week, the rocket passed an important milestone in testing — reaching 200 kilowatts (enough to move the ISS). A video of the rocket can be seen on Ad Astra's site."
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Ex-Astronaut Developing Plasma Rocket To Revitalize NASA

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  • by TheKidWho ( 705796 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:07PM (#29647421)

    AFAIK they have been working on VASIMR for over a decade now... This isn't exactly "news"

  • by ForexCoder ( 1208982 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:12PM (#29647485)
    NASA really needs to move to a research and incubation role, similar to what it does in the aeronautical world. Given the constant changes in direction each new administration brings, and the whims of budgeting each new congress brings, NASA can't continue to be the primary source for launch vehicles.

    They should license out the Ares technology, promote competitions among the multiple private rocket vendors and focus on scientific and development missions using private vendors to provide the launch capacity.
  • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:20PM (#29647607) Journal

    A cynical view I know. But the US Gov pays through the nose to train these guys who then just retire and try to cash in on the Washington gravy train. Just like the rest of the high level military, political and bureaucratic employees that leave gov employment in order to cash in. Typical and sad.

    Why is that "sad"? Would you keep working for the Government if you had a skillset that was going to enable you to make a lot more money in the private sector? Does it also bother you when someone gets an entry level IT job and then leaves for greener pastures once they acquire sufficient work experience?

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:21PM (#29647617) Homepage

    Or maybe, just maybe, the guy got a doctorate in plasma physics, and flew 7 Space Shuttle missions (which isn't exactly safe), directed the NASA Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, and is investing in plasma rocket research after his NASA tenure because he's interested in plasma physics, rocket science, and the possibilities of space flight.

  • by alrudd1287 ( 1288914 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:25PM (#29647665)
    Can't any amount of power move the ISS just at a slower rate?
  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:26PM (#29647677) Homepage

    But the US Gov pays through the nose to train these guys who then just retire and try to cash in on the Washington gravy train.

    Yeah he retired after "just" twenty five years []. He really screwed NASA on that one!

    And what, after he retires, he's not supposed to do the most obvious things related to his education and experience? He was working on plasma rockets before he made it to NASA. So is it worse that he's planning to work on plasma rockets to sell to NASA after working for them for a quarter century, rather than going into private industry straight out of college? Why? Because it vaguely fits a stereotype of ex-government employees leaving to work for contractors?

    A cynical view I know.

    Yeah... What's the word where cynicism is used as a replacement for understanding? Kinda like "blind optimism", but the opposite? Blind cynicism doesn't sound right. As a cynic, I've always liked the expression "cynicism is realism plus experience". But you're not being realistic. So... what is it that you're doing?

  • by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:36PM (#29647799)

    A non-chemical rocket that can produce that level of thrust is absolutely news, it has the potential to open up the solar system. Personally, I'd rather see research and developement into ground to orbit launch technologies, but this is a big part of moving things quickly from one part of the system to another.

    To be fair, the title is what is wrong, it should be "VASIMR Tested at Full Power" not "VASIMR under developement".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:40PM (#29647849)
    What Ares technology?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:41PM (#29647867)

    Russian technology []

    Yours In Baikonur,
    Kilgore T.

  • by TheMeuge ( 645043 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @02:57PM (#29648089)

    This is the same kind of math used by proponents of President Obama's healthcare socialization package. If you will, it's also the same math used to justify the Soviet command economy.

    On paper, eliminating profits saves money for the hypothetical society. In reality, however, eliminating profit also eliminates self-interest, which very effectively stagnates or degrades the enterprise... be it at the level of a single supermarket, or the economy of the wealthiest country on Earth.

    The reason why this doesn't work, is because you need several things to get something accomplished. You need the WILL to start it... the RESPONSIBILITY to see it through, and the MEANS to get it done. Socialism helps with the means... but not the will. Capitalism helps with the will, by accepting man as the egotistical bastard he is, and appealing to the basest of desires: greed.

    But nothing helps with responsibility. For as long as clerks with 1-inch fingernails will 1-finger-type endless requisition forms to get anything done in large organizations (which includes companies as well as governments) with zero interest or concern for what they are doing, waste will reign supreme. At least in private enterprise, this is somewhat moderated by the need for more profit. A government bureaucracy, on the other hand, is like entropy. It spontaneously expands, and this can only be reversed locally, at an even greater cost to the entire system.

  • Re:Perspective (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sexybomber ( 740588 ) <> on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:06PM (#29648197)
    The rewards are, in fact, very good. As any self-respecting IT geek knows, one of the best ways to protect your data is through multiple, redundant, off-site backups. Homo sapiens currently has no such backups.

    Also, if you can physically get to an asteroid, that's the first step towards mining it, or perhaps nudging it (very, very carefully) towards Earth orbit, so as to mine it more easily.
  • by dferrantino ( 1630629 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:12PM (#29648273)
    That's exactly what they've been doing lately. SpaceX is in the process of becoming the primary provider of resupply missions to the ISS for when the shuttle program ends.
  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:13PM (#29648289) Homepage

    So we've got a _really smart_ guy we've paid to educate, paid for many years to perform exactly 7 times... I'm not about to give him a free pass just because he's got a doctorate and a handful of mission patches.

    Given your flippant tone, I'm sure you'll be surprised to hear that 7 space shuttle flights is as many as anyone has ever done. Only one other astronaut has as many missions under their belt. This is because space flight is a Big Deal. Astronauts often train for years for a single specific mission.

    By the do you amass enough cash to personally invest significantly in this kind of endeavor, considering otherwise "normal" governmental salaries in the 70-130k/year range?Or is he primarily a front man - a very smart one - who is helping to get money from others (perhaps old colleagues with strings to government funds?) to pursue this research.

    Front-man... inventor of the technology the company makes... Yeah, same thing.

    I'm not saying he's not doing interesting, and possibly valuable, research, but I'm not about to give him a free pass just because he's got a doctorate and a handful of mission patches.

    What does that even mean? A "pass" from what? What horrible sin has he allegedly committed? Leaving NASA after a mere twenty five years and a record number of shuttle missions? Turning his research into plasma propulsion into a real invention? Throw me a bone here!

    Now, if he's made a bunch of money doing other things (dot com bubble investor?), and is pursuing this as a purely speculative path, then good for him.

    Oh I see. So if he'd managed to fund this venture without having done anything productive rather than inventing a new propulsion system, then you'd be cool with it.

    WTF is with these comments?

  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:29PM (#29648469) Homepage

    So if Mr. Astronaut became a lobbyist instead that'd be okay too? Or a Medal of Honor winner who pimps his heroism out to lobby for munitions makers seeking gov contracts? Guns and bombs is what he knows right?

    But that's not what he's doing, now is it? He's starting a private company, with private investment, and creating what he hopes are practical solutions for other private industries and NASA.

    This is exactly what I'm talking about -- "cynicism" is not saying "this will end badly" without concern for the specifics of what "this" is. You have to look at the actual reality and distinguish based on that. "So if he [did something else] that'd be okay too?", implying no distinction based on the actual activity or its outcome, is the opposite of realism.

    For a self described cynic (as in always asking "who benefits?") you sure do have a idealistic outlook which goes against the weight of the evidence about who lobbys and for what.

    He is going to benefit, obviously so, because he's the CEO of the company. What's the problem again? He's going to get a nice NASA contract, become Yet Another Defense Contractor, and lobby congress to give NASA more funds? Oh noes!

    You don't sound like a cynic to me. You sound like a betrayed idealist, with a rosy-eyed view of how things "should" be, and constantly finding that not to be the case. So you say things will end badly in some vague way, without regard to what's actually happening because it doesn't matter.

    Personally, seeing someone trying to use the 'best of both worlds' of private enterprise and government contracts to drag NASA kicking and screaming out of the 60s warms my cynical heart.

  • by GameMaster ( 148118 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:31PM (#29648497)

    Yes, they've been working on VASIMIR, and many other technologies, for decades. What makes this story newsworthy is the fact that they've passed another major milestone and are one step away from real-world implementation in the space station. Unfortunately, public opinion often weighs heavily, whether we like it or not, on which technologies get the funding to continue development. This is true in government projects, like what NASA does, and doubly true in privately funded companies like the one developing this rocket. So, you may not like to see incremental updates on new technology that takes decades to develop but it servers an important purpose in bringing the money men into the process and getting them to fund advancement. Besides, if you don't like seeing updates on the bleeding edge of advanced technology research and development, what are you doing on Slashdot? This is "news for nerds", not "news for grumpy whiners that like to complain about any story they don't, personally, find fascinating".

  • by samkass ( 174571 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:38PM (#29648611) Homepage Journal

    This may be a stupid question, but if there is no perceived gravity in a "perfect" orbit, but the ISS orbit is decaying, wouldn't that mean that the decay is being caused by acceleration, causing it to be less than a perfect microgravity environment. If you, on the other hand, had a tiny thruster operating 100% of the time that kept the ISS in its perfect orbit, wouldn't that mean a BETTER microgravity environment, not a worse one? In other words, by constantly counteracting the drag of the atmosphere instead of letting it build up then using significant thrust, wouldn't you go from microgravity 99% of the time to even better microgravity 100% of the time?

  • Re:Idiocy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by smallfries ( 601545 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:45PM (#29648713) Homepage

    This doesn't solve ANYTHING.

    ONE OF the problems with space travel, that has been true for the past 60 years since the first rockets reached the edge of space, has been it costs a HUGE amount of finite resources to get anything into orbit. At least $10,000 a kilogram for a man rated launcher. Better engines that only work out in space do utterly nothing to solve this problem.

    Spot the logical fallacy after I've corrected your basic error. With the technology to perform (unmanned) interplanetary missions and retrieve resources from around the solar system the amount of raw stuff that we need to hoist up the gravity well diminishes considerably. Currently if want to attempt a manned interplanetary mission we need to lift every last gram that it needs from the surface. Orbital manufacturing and resource retrieval are orders of magnitude more important than improving our capability to lift things into orbit - because they reduce the amount that we need to lift by orders of magnitude.

  • by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:48PM (#29648739) Homepage

    Odds are, he's gone this route, because the current structure of the Federal government is such that it's much easier to fund and develop a project through a private corporation receiving federal funding than it is to have the agency to the actual work.

    (This is nothing particularly new either. Although it's my understanding that NASA used to do more in-house engineering work than it currently does, rocket engines have been privately sourced since the days of Apollo, and possibly even earlier.)

    He worked with NASA for 25 years before retirement, and was by all appearances, a model employee of the agency, not to mention the immense personal sacrifices he gave as an astronaut (years of training for an incredibly risky job that only lasts for a few days). I'm astonished by the negative tone being used in these comment threads, given that the guy is clearly displaying great scientific ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.

    Although I'd like to see NASA cultivate its own talent, as far as I'm aware, he's working well within the bounds of the system.'re trying to fault a guy who's advanced the state of science and risked his own life numerous times by doing so for trying to make money by doing so. Are you going to now start complaining about how our greedy, money-grubbing soldiers want to eat while deployed?

  • Re:Perspective (Score:4, Insightful)

    by BarefootClown ( 267581 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @03:51PM (#29648767) Homepage

    You're kidding, right?

    Right now, the chances of dying on a Space Shuttle trip are a bit over one percent. That said, I'll bet if you were to offer rides to the public--knowing full-well that the odds of dying in a fiery hell of hydrazine and liquid oxygen are about two in one-fifty--I'll bet the line would be around the block before the last words were out of your mouth.

    And I'd be at the front of that line.

    Do you really think there's any shortage of people who wouldn't love to go to space, to explore something new? Even without any reward--hell, even if you didn't pay a salary for their service--you'd have no trouble finding volunteers. Lined up around the block, probably more than a few fist-fighting for one space closer to the head of the line.

    And I'd make sure I won that fight.

    In fact, you could probably make it a one-way mission--we'll send you to Mars, you'll help us with experiments, and you'll plant a flag with your name at the base, but we can't bring you home--and the volunteers would come.

    Oh, yes, they'd come. Just for the chance to touch the soil of a foreign planet. The chance to travel to the great unknown, to be the first to do something truly majestic. Oh, yes, they'd come.

  • Re:Perspective (Score:3, Insightful)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @04:36PM (#29649373) Journal
    Depends on what you're mining. A chunk of ice the size of Mt Everest could keep a spacecraft supplied with propellant, breatable atmosphere and water for many years. VASIMIR could tug one of those out of the asteroid belt and nudge it into orbit around Mars. Then when our brave and noble astronauts arrive, there'll be plenty of raw material for propellant and life support.
  • Re:Perspective (Score:3, Insightful)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @04:43PM (#29649513) Journal
    In fact, you could probably make it a one-way mission--we'll send you to Mars, you'll help us with experiments, and you'll plant a flag with your name at the base, but we can't bring you home--and the volunteers would come.

    I can't help but notice that you're not at the front of THAT line.
  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @05:09PM (#29650039) Journal

    When I was 20, fusion was 20 years away, and it seemed likely we'd see space-baced fusion drives in my lifetime. Now I'm 40, and fusion is 20 years away ...

  • by cheesybagel ( 670288 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @05:10PM (#29650047)
    Chemical rockets history? Pray tell, does VASIMR even have a thrust-to-weight ratio over 1:1? There are chemical rockets with thrust-to-weight ratios over 100:1. The only non-chemical forms of propulsion that compare (theoretically) to chemical rockets in that regard are certain types of nuclear rockets (e.g. nuclear pulse propulsion) and beamed propulsion.

    VASIMR is for in space propulsion only. Even then there are alternatives which require less outrageous amounts of energy to work in a reasonably efficient fashion such as ion engines.

  • Re:Idiocy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nyeerrmm ( 940927 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @06:49PM (#29651239)

    What this and other EP do is reduce the amount of fuel needed to get from LEO to where ever you're going. If you can reduce the mass fraction from say 2:1 to 1:2, you've cut your on-orbit mass in half, and thus can use a launch vehicle that's half the size.

    While reducing the cost of the access to orbit is important, it doesn't mean that this is 'idiotic' and doesn't solve anything. I have issues with VASIMR (its always seemed very vapor-ish), but if its eventually capable of doing what it requires it will be a great tool for interplanetary missions. Something that can cut your launch costs in half isn't something to sneeze at.

    In addition, it has one big advantage over, say, a space elevator. It is likely to eventually work in the next few decades(even if it is late and overbudget), and doesn't require materials that don't exist.

  • Re:Idiocy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nyeerrmm ( 940927 ) on Monday October 05, 2009 @10:16PM (#29652823)

    If I'm designing a mission I'd be pretty happy to be able to cut my costs in half. Granted, it would be great to have a very cheap way to get to orbit, but as a practical engineer I'm much more impressed by a mostly functional prototype at the recommended scale with proper funding than I am by some theoretical work. While I have no reason to believe that laser propulsion will not work, it is at a TRL level of 2 from everything I can tell, while VASIMR is at TRL 6.

    As someone looking at what I actually want to use to complete a mission, I'm much more interested in something that can cut my costs in half and is likely to be available within the next 10 years, than I am with something that has some paper concepts and a few basic lab experiments. I try not to be too much of a naysayer of new technology, but at the same time , comparing something entirely theoretical to something with significant amounts of development is absurd. Yes, if laser propulsion (or any other kind of new method to reach orbit) turns out to be a practical development it will be a much bigger deal, but in the meantime I find something that (almost) exists and reduces launch costs by half pretty valuable.

If it's not in the computer, it doesn't exist.