History of the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket
Ad Astra Rocket Company was founded in 2005 by former NASA astronaut and plasma physicist, Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz. However, the idea for the VASIMR® engine began years before the formation of the company.
As a PhD student at MIT in the early 1970s Dr. Chang Díaz worked on the problem of controlled thermonuclear fusion, the virtually unlimited energy process that powers the sun and the stars. After graduation, he joined the technical staff at the C. S. Draper Laboratory, focusing on the development of conceptual fusion reactors for commercial electricity production. However, besides electricity, Dr. Chang Díaz also recognized the potential of the technology for rocket propulsion and his idea of a plasma rocket began to take form.. After moving to Houston in 1980 to join the 9th Class of NASA astronauts, he split his time between his training and flying back to Boston to work on the engine concept, now an active experiment that he led at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. The MIT research continued for nearly a decade until 1994 when the experiment was moved to a new facility under his direction, the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory (ASPL) at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. The ASPL team grew to a collaboration of 50 scientists and engineers from NASA, several universities and the national Laboratories at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge and, over a decade, developed the controlling physics of the VASIMR® engine.
In 2005, the project was privatized by a Space Act Agreement between NASA and the Ad Astra Rocket Company, a newly formed corporation lead by Dr. Chang Díaz upon his retirement from NASA that year. Ad Astra operated inside the NASA campus for nearly two years before moving to a new company facility a few miles from the Johnson Space Center in the City of Webster, Texas.
The development of the VASIMR® engine was the foundation of the company and still is one of the primary projects however over the last 15 years, the company has taken on a larger mission. At the center of all our projects is the desire to help improve the human experience through innovative technology.
In 2010, after several years of operation, our subsidiary located in Costa Rica, switched focus away from extended plasma physics research to tackle a new cause, creating a sustainable carbon-free future. Our Costa Rica subsidiary is currently focused on implementing tailored clean energy solutions based on green-hydrogen energy storage for electric transport and stationary power.
Although they may seem unrelated, our work on the VASIMR® engine and in renewable energy are connected, in more ways than one. The major connection is indeed our CEO. Most astronauts feel similarly once they have the opportunity to see the Earth from space; we need to be better at protecting our only habitable ecosystem.
“You look down at the one and only home you know, and you realize it is home to everyone that has ever lived, everyone that you have ever met. The planet holds the story of life, past and present. Yet, many of our current practices are damaging this fragile ecosystem, the only one we have. It makes you want to do your part to protect it.”
Regardless of how efficiently we utilize our finite resources, the sheer and growing number of people the Earth has to provide for will soon overwhelm the planets capacity, so ultimately, we must evolve and adapt to live in new environments in space.
We know that sustainable carbon-free energy and electric transportation are intimately connected, both in space and on Earth. They will be important for our activities on the Moon, Mars and other worlds. For space transportation, developing the VASIMR® engine will make in-space transportation fast, sustainable and efficient.
Our work on the VASIMR® engine is exciting, something never before attempted that places us at the frontier of technology. Behind us lies everything we know so far, in front of us there is opportunity, promise and uncertainty. We thrive in an environment of discovery, innovation, creativity with a “can-do” mind-set, focused on problem solving.
“Behind us lies everything we know so far, in front of us there is opportunity, promise and uncertainty. We thrive in an environment of discovery, innovation, creativity with a “can-do” mind-set, focused on problem solving.“
– CEO, Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz
The VASIMR® Timeline
Before becoming an astronaut, Franklin Chang Diaz was a scientist. His research and development of the VASIMR (before it was given that name) was conducted at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Boston, MA.
In 1980 Franklin Chang Diaz got the call informing him that he would be joining the 9th class of NASA Astronauts. Franklin moved to Houston, Texas to start training, however he was not going to give up the work he had be doing regarding plasma propulsion. From that moment until the early 90s, Franklin was leading a double life training and flying in the space shuttle and working on the continual development of the VASIMR® engine. Flying back and forth from Houston to Boston.
In December of 1993, in conjunction with astronaut training at NASA, Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz founded and directed the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory (ASPL) at NASA Johnson Space Center in order to develop the physics of the VASIMR® rocket engine. His double life continued but with less travel between cities. At this point the VASIMR® had grown into Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 2 , a full blown R&D research project involving 50 research scientists from National Laboratories at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos as well as several universities and other NASA centers.
In 2005 Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz – after a 25-year career as a NASA astronaut logging over 1600 hours in space including 19 hours in 3 space walks over seven space missions – decided to privatize the VASIMR® project , and so Ad Astra Rocket Company, a U.S. corporation, was founded. We officially moved into our current facility in 2007.
In 2006, we opened our subsidiary, Ad Astra Rocket Company Costa Rica, in order to bring a piece of Franklin’s technological achievements back to his country of origin. We built our subsidiary in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province; a region primarily known for it’s eco-tourism. This was Franklin’s way of expressing his vision to turn Guanacaste into a technological hub.
In 2010, the subsidiary, although keeping the door open to future projects related to the VASIMR® and space, shifted to Renewable Energy, with a focus on green hydrogen. Green hydrogen represents an opportunity for Costa Rica and the Latin American region to achieve a carbon-free energy independence. The subsidiary now looks at its job as 360 clean energy solution provider.
After a decade of advances in TRL, brought about by private investors, in 2015 NASA rejoined the project under the NextSTEP Program in partnership with Ad Astra to develop high-power electric propulsion for future NASA missions.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the VASIMR® technology has matured to TRL 5, one step away from TRL 6, the technology readiness level dedicated to building a space flight prototype.
On June 30th the company completed a record-breaking test of the engine, operating at a power level of 82.5 kW for 28 hours, far longer than any other high-power firing to date.
And just a few weeks later the company surpassed that long-duration/ high-power personal record with an even more impressive test, running the engine at 80kW power for 88hrs straight at a steady state, a major accomplishment for our team and the industry.
Once the VASIMR® technology has finished TRL 6, Ad Astra looks to demonstrating the technology in space, moving quickly to commercial deployment, transforming the business of space logistics and beyond.