21st Century Science & Technology


Reaping the Benefits of Latin American Space Cooperation

NASA Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, was born in 1950 in Costa Rica, and named after U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He has been a tireless organizer for a space agency for all of the nations of Ibero-America. Chang-Diaz came to the United States in 1968 to study science, with the goal of becoming an astronaut. A veteran of six Space Shuttle missions over the past 15 years, Chang-Diaz is a plasma physicist, who has worked on innovative designs for magnetically confined high-temperature plasma space propulsion for trips to Mars.

He was interviewed by Marsha Freeman on Feb. 21, 2002.

For more on Latin America's space cooperation, see the cover story of the Spring 2002 issue: "Boosting Ibero-America into Space" by Marsha Freeman.


Franklin Chang-Diaz

NASA Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz has led a tireless fight for the nations of Ibero-America to work together, under the umbrella of a space agency. The veteran of six Space Shuttle missions, Chang-Diaz has organized the government of his native Costa Rica to participate in space activities, and helped formulate multinational projects for Ibero-America.

Question: We last talked about the possibility of forming a Latin American Space Agency in an interview in 1987. There have been changes since then, most recently, the call by Dr. Conrado Varotto from Argentina for such an organization. What activity have you been involved in recently?

I have had an ongoing level of interest in this for many years. Going back to 1991, we had the first space conference of the Americas which was held in Costa Rica. It was at that forum that the idea for a Latin American Space Agency began to be kicked around on a more formal basis. We had been working with a small group of Latin American scientists before then, but we managed to organize a fairly large conference that was sponsored by the government of Costa Rica, which was headed by Oscar Arias. He actually got on the phone and called all of his counterparts in the countries of Latin America.

We also had the help of the U.N. Development Program, which gave us a little bit of money, to put together this initial meeting. It was a real success, attended by official delegations from all of the countries of Latin America, and also the United States and Canada.

The general idea was not to have just a Latin American Space Agency but a Pan-American Space Agency, that would include the countries of North America—the U.S. and Canada. It was going to be patterned along the same lines as the European Space Agency, which would not prevent the existence of individual space agencies in each country. But it would bring together a lot of the “gray matter” that exists all over the region to embark on space projects that would be relevant to the respective countries.

This conference was the beginning of a series of conferences that took place every year, in a different host country. In that conference the topic of a space agency came up, and the Brazilians opposed it. They didn’t want such an agency to be created. So they threw cold water on the idea, but it certainly raised the level of consciousness of other countries of doing it. The conference in Costa Rica put the idea on the table. It was not formally endorsed by all of the countries, but the idea remains, and stays quite alive.

The result of the Costa Rica conference was to create, not a space agency, but a protemporary secretariat at the official national level, and all of the countries agreed to participate. The delegates selected a secretary general, who was the Minister of Science and Technology of Costa Rica. The idea was that whenever the conference would take place in another country, the secretariat would transfer over to the host country.

After that first meeting, the strategy was not to focus too much in creating a space agency, per se, but more on projects that would be catalytic: that would bring together groups of countries in the region, which, by doing projects, would be building the bricks that would eventually create the infrastructure. Then, the decision to take the step toward a space agency would be a lot more palatable, if you had already a framework that had been tested and proven to work.

Question: What was accomplished at the second meeting?

The second conference took place two years later in Santiago de Chile, and the Foreign Ministry selected a protemporary secretary, who was one of the ambassadors. In Chile, we started a bunch of new projects, which had NASA sponsorship, but also were sponsored by the individual governments.

One of them has been very successful—the Chagas project. In this project, the idea was to use space technology, particularly protein crystallization, to study the structure of the parasite that causes Chagas disease, which is a very serious problem in Latin America. It affects between 16 and 18 million people in Central and South America, and about 20,000 die each year. Protein crystallization technology is also being developed for studying diseases like AIDS and cancer.

Chagas is known as a “poor man’s disease,” so the problem was not being addressed by the big drug companies. We felt this was an ideal project to involve quite a few of the countries, and show how space technology can be relevant to the development of the region.

The project brought together Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina, and Uruguay. We obtained permission from NASA to fly protein enzymes from the trypanasoa parasite that causes Chagas disease, on the Space Shuttle, to study their structure. On a later flight, the Brazilians joined the project. The protein made by the parasite that was chosen as the target to study in space, was one that is critical in the metabolic cyle of the parasite. If you could inhibit this protein, you could kill the parasite, because it cannot metabilize.

In the Brazilian experiment, which flew on a Shuttle mission, this protein was mixed with a compound which was extracted from a plant in the tropical rain forest, which seems to have anti-parasitic, medicinal properties. This chemical compound, produced by the plant, could be synthesized, if we understood its structure, and its interaction with the parasite. Then it could be used as a treatment. The results in space were quite compelling, particularly when they crystallized the protein together with the inhibitor.

Question: Will there be a follow-on to the Shuttle experiments?

Because these Shuttle flights are so short, the protein crystallization does not produce large crystals. You need long periods of time in weightlessness, which means you need to take this to the International Space Station. The U.S. government has authorized some funding in collaboration with funding from the other countries, to bring the project to a new level of expertise, more sophisticated techniques, and look at the possibilities of flying a permanent experiment that would be located on the space station.

This project is being managed out of EARTH University (Escuela de Agricultura de la Region Tropical Humida) in Costa Rica, which deals with new uses for biodiversity. It is an amazing place. The people in this University, which is smack in the center of the rain forest, are looking at how to use the resources of the rain forest, and one of them is the extraction of medicinal compounds, which could be synthesized if we understood their structure. This is one project that really took off from this initiative to generate a space agency.

Question: How many scientists are involved in the project?

To date, we have 18 scientists involved in six countries, with at least two or three institutions per country involved. Dr. Larry DeLucas, from the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography in Alabama, provided the space in his experiment, and is part of the group. He is very excited about it. He had never heard of Chagas disease before.

The other thing that happened at the conference in Costa Rica, is that Costa Rica became connected to what was the early Internet, called Bitnet. In those days, none of the countries were connected, and at the conference, we initiated the very first network connection between Costa Rica and the United States. We connected with the NASA network, directly from the hotel, and demonstrated how you could have remote access of data.

The idea was to put all of the Latin American scientists to work. In Latin America, we have scientists, but not enough data. Here in the United States you have the opposite; we have tons of data sitting in the data banks, waiting to be looked at. Now, of course, the rest of Latin America is connected to the Internet.

I think this idea is gathering momentum. I’ve been visiting all the countries, talking to all of the people about this idea of a joint space agency. The Brazilians have been quite reticient to be a part of it because they felt they wanted to go it alone. They have already done so, but there is a lot of potential out there.

Question: Was there a conference that followed the one in Chile?

Yes, there was one in Uruguay, in Punto del Este, and this was another step in the process.

But I came to the conclusion that the best way to approach this problem was not by going from conference to conference, because I noticed there was a lot of talk, but very little in the way of action. I think the best way is to actually do some projects and demonstrate what can be done. That has been my strategy from that time—stay away from a lot of hot air that comes out of politicians who go to talk about these things in conferences, because it doesn’t amount to much. I prefer to focus on projects that are more tangible and produce some results that people can see.

Question: There is already a lot of international cooperation on space projects in Latin America, between Argentina and Brazil on a satellite, between Brazil and NASA on the International Space Station, and with China. If you look at Latin America as a whole, there is the capability to do many things in space, from designing, building and testing satellites, to launching them, and then analyzing the data. But so far the expertise and infrastructure are spread around in many places, and not coordinated.

That is exactly right, and precisely the problem. You know, they say that we are a continent separated by a common language! It is crazy. Latin Americans have everything going for them, yet the interaction doesn’t exist, I guess because of the historical roots of how the countries developed.

STS-91 crew

In June 1998, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, the STS-91 crew posed in a star formation for their mission portrait. Franklin Chang-Diaz is to the left of Wendy Lawrence, at the bottom center. Chang-Diaz has called for bringing “together the ‘gray matter’ that exists all over the region to embark on space programs that would be relevant to the respective countries.”

Question: The United States learned the lesson, referred to recently by scientists from Brazil, that the technology developed in the 1960s Apollo program created a flood of new technologies into the economy. Do you think that a more visionary space program would help revitalize the economies of Latin America?

I feel strongly that these projects have to have a by-product that is tangible, and very immediate, in order for them to be cost-effective. Otherwise, you end up with an infrastructure, and people who go from one meeting to another. It wastes resources. It tends to become in the realm of politicians. I think the Brazilians have had the right approach from day one, which has given them great results: They have involved the private sector and are looking at direct applications to produce a net gain. It is a good example that we all need to follow.

One of the things we need to do is more projects that are multilateral in nature and take advantage of this infrastructure that you mentioned, which is scattered throughout the continent, and bring it together in a project that will bring results. That has been the dream and goal from day one. I guess in small steps, we are gradually getting there.

We continue to do this from Costa Rica. A lot of the people in the government are people I know well, and they have moved quickly to take advantage of these ideas. I have a lot of friends in Chile and have been very much connected with their efforts to put together a space agency. It has been a very agonizing effort and I am glad it is beginning to pay off. They had a lot of debate about that in the country.

Question: What will be the focus of their space program in Chile?

They want to be involved in a lot of things. Two of the scientists in Chile were the ones who originally suggested the use of space technology for combatting Chagas. They’re also interested in remote sensing and remote education, telemedicine, and are open to all kinds of things. They have conducted several workshops on things like disaster prevention, weather forecasting, things of interest to people in the Southern Cone.

Question: In our 1987 interview, you mentioned that one benefit of developing and applying space technology for Latin America is that it would enable the countries “to take a short-cut in development.”

You can see it happening now. In Latin America, a lot of people use cell phones. The reason is that there is not enough hard infrastructure for telephones, and it’s very expensive to wire all over these countries, whereas you can do it using satellites.

There is a very interesting new distance-learning project taking shape now in Costa Rica, which is called LINCOS, Little Integrated Communities Systems. They got a shipping container and put a mainframe supercomputer inside, and helicoptered it into the mountains near a village. They deployed fiber optic cable to the village, and the computer is operated automatically and powered by solar collectors. You have a node deep in the mountains that has all the computing power you can imagine. It’s like having a supercomputer on Mars.

The village receives direct, high-speed access to the Internet through the computer, which is linked through a satellite. It’s an integrated, self-contained system, which connects this village, which would otherwise be totally out of touch, with the rest of the world.

Question: Is the government providing educational programing?

Yes. This is a very nice example of how you can bypass all previous development and go directly to today, using space technology. The guy behind that is the former president of Costa Rica, José Figueres, who was the president four years ago.

Question: In our earlier interview, you pointed out that when a country is developing, it becomes a consumer of high technology goods, “and a country like the U.S. could be a very big supplier.” When countries are poor, they end up depending upon the U.S., instead, for foreign aid, you said.

Poverty anywhere is bad, because people can’t buy anything. The development of the countries of the South ought to be one of our highest priorities, because these are going to be our trading partners, and if they come up to the same level of technology as we are, there will be strong trade and lots of opportunities for everyone. It doesn’t pay to have a very developed country surrounded by very poor countries. You have no real connection to these countries.

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