John J. Miller’s tribute to Robert Heinlein reminds me that I spent almost an hour with a real rocket scientist Friday. It reminds me because as he was explaining what he does, he kept refering to science fiction, warp drive, Star Trek, and such, which I had at least passing familiarity with. No wonder these science fiction guys are so well liked; they knew stuff about technology’s potential (and human nature). Franklin Chang Diaz, an astronaut (made seven space flights for NASA) most his life, he now runs something called Astra Rocket Company. It is a private firm that means to revolutionize space transportation by building The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), in short a plasma rocket. Although he was perfectly congenial fellow, also an "American by Choice" (from Costa Rica), yet, as you can imagine the conversation became one sided very quickly. I just asked a lot of questions. All I understood about what he is doing is that his plasma rocket (usable in space only, say, between a space station and the Moon or Mars) will be able to make runs (you know, he said deliver milk, and bread and stuff, and later people) between space colonies and will cost about ninety percent less than if the government did it. He said his rocket will be up at the space station by 2010. With current rocket technologies a round trip to Mars would take two years, but with his plasma rocket
"More rapid transits are possible with a VASIMR propulsion system powered by a nuclear-electric generator. With 12 megawatts of electrical power, a ship could reach Mars in less than four months and with 200 megawatts of power the outbound trip could be as short as 39 days." More here.
An impressive American (rocket scientist)!