What does space travel have to do with EARTH? Ask EARTH president José Zaglul, and member of the EARTH University Board of Directors, Franklin Chang Díaz, and they will tell you that both are about dreaming the impossible and achieving it.
On May 5, Chang was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Chang, who was born and raised in Costa Rica, moved to the United States as a teenager with nothing more than an “impossible” dream of becoming an astronaut. With endless determination, he completed his senior year of high school and undergraduate studies in the US and earned a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1980 he was selected by NASA and in 1981 became the first astronaut not born in America and of Latin American origin.
His relationship with EARTH began approximately eighteen years ago, when the University invited him to speak with students. Chang instantly identified with EARTH, and opportunities for collaboration began to emerge.
“The invitation soon came and resulted in one of the most enriching and profound experiences in my life: my relationship with EARTH. From that moment on I was captivated by the notion, a new concept in agricultural learning in harmony with nature,” said Franklin.
The first collaboration was ambitious: finding a cure for Chagas disease (a fatal illness that affects millions of people the Americas).
Led by Franklin and EARTH, The ChagaSpace Project was a collaborative effort between researchers and scientists from institutions and universities in the US and Latin America to find potential extracts from the tropical forest that could inhibit specific enzymes in the parasite that carries Chagas. In two different space missions, Franklin crystallized the proteins of the parasite, enabling researchers on the ground to conduct targeted experiments.
Beyond the ChagaSpace Project, Franklin remained connected to EARTH, visiting several times and bringing fellow NASA astronauts to campus. He joined the EARTH President’s Advisory Board and opened the door for EARTH students to conduct internships with him at NASA, where they contributed to the creation of the book Costa Rica from Space, co-published by EARTH professor Bert Kohlmann and NASA.
The relationship strengthened when in 2006, Franklin who was now retired from NASA, established Ad Astra Rocket Company Costa Rica on the EARTH-La Flor campus in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. Beyond just being located on the EARTH campus, Ad Astra is working with EARTH on research projects in renewable energy.
In recognition of his long-standing friendship and partnership, and his extraordinary contributions to society, in December 2010 Franklin was awarded an honorary doctorate from EARTH.
“The involvement of scientists like Franklin and his colleagues was a huge source of motivation and encouragement for us in our early years. In many ways it validated our educational model; it gave us more credibility. Since we were a new University, having the support of these well-known academics and scientists helped give EARTH a name,” explained José Zaglul of the immeasurable impact Franklin has had on EARTH.
This year Franklin became a member of the EARTH University Board of Directors, a position from which he will undoubtedly encourage the Institution to continue innovating and expanding its reach, as it seeks to achieve environmental, social and economic well-being for the planet.
“On my first two space missions I had meticulously photographed the ravaged forest of the planet. It was encouraging to learn that there already was a place of hope where that enormous damage could be reversed from scratch: by shaping ‘leaders of change,’ young minds that could steer a new and sustainable course for life on the planet,” concludes Franklin.