tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS January 2, 2016 4:00pm-4:31pm PST
>> hinojosa: as nasa's first latino astronaut, he traveled to space seven times, and spent an impressive 1,600 hours away from earth. now he's developing a new kind of rocket that will help open up the solar system to human exploration. former nasa astronaut and rocket scientist franklin chang-diaz. i'm maria hinijosa. this is one on one. franklin chang-diaz, the astronaut. been in space seven times. what an honor it is to... i have to touch you. it's like, "oh, my god." welcome to our program. >> thank you, maria. it's a pleasure to be here with you.
>> i mean, no, seriously, it's like, when do you get to meet somebody who's actually orbited, who's been in space? it's an extraordinary thing. do you feel kind of extraordinary most of the time? >> well, you know, it's something that i was really not prepared for, you know? that sort of attention that we get as people who have flown in space, less now than it used to be, but still significant, was something that i was not quite prepared for. >> hinojosa: you mean because of the fact that, like, for you, you are the first latino astronaut from the united states, but you actually are from costa rica. your name... i love your name. so franklin from franklin delano roosevelt. >> roosevelt, that's right. >> hinojosa: chang from your grandfather. >> from china. >> hinojosa: from china. and diaz from your... >> maternal grandfather from spain. >> hinojosa: from spain. >> costa rica, actually. >> hinojosa: and then costa rica. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: you are, like, the... >> little bit of a mix there. >> hinojosa: what is that like, to... i mean, you say that it's a little uncomfortable to be seen as something special, but
again, to be seen as someone, some person special in three entirely different countries is pretty extraordinary. >> well, it's a very big responsibility in some ways, mainly to the young people. because, you know, we become sort of role models, and... >> hinojosa: sort of? >> we would like to be good role models, as the role models that we had when we were growing up. and for me, you know, i always wanted to be an astronaut, ever since i was little. and... but i was not really mentally prepared for the responsibility of being in such a limelight. >> hinojosa: but how is it... because, you know, all little girls and boys, more so now girls and boys, but, you know, play with the rockets, and... but i want to know how you actually were like, "no, no, no, this is something that i'm actually going to do-- i'm actually going to study, and i
believe that i will actually get to space." what makes that, like, leap for you versus another little boy or girl who is fascinated but, you know, doesn't become an astronaut? >> well, you know, i am stubborn. that's one thing that i do have. and i think every young child pretty much is born, you know, with an explorer's mind. the child explores, and then little by little, maybe through the environment, family, parents, friends, it gets kind of cased in, boxed in to certain ways. and i think i was lucky to have a set of parents that never really boxed me in, that always, you know, let me sort of find my way. and... >> hinojosa: and they were poor. you had a very humble background. >> humble background, yeah. we were nothing special. my... neither one of my parents went to college, or even
finished high school. >> hinojosa: but you did... you were sent to the best schools. >> i was sent to the best schools in costa rica, because my parents were strong believers in education as the vehicle, you know, the legacy they can really give me. and as a vehicle for me to succeed and to reach whatever it is that... you know, that i wanted to reach. and my mother, being the smart woman that she is, you know, said, "oh, you want to be an astronaut? yes, of course, but you have to study. you have to be an engineer. you have to really be a scientist if you really want to be an astronaut." >> hinojosa: so she understood the kind of steps... >> she understood the context, and she was able to kind of put me in a path that would allow me to succeed regardless of whether or not i made it. >> hinojosa: i love your mom. there's a clip of your mom talking where she's so cute, because she says, "i am the only mother in all of costa rica that can say i am the mother of an astronaut."
>> that's right, that's right. she's a cute... she's as cute as smart. she's very smart. >> hinojosa: so proud of you. >> and a person that really, really was probably the most significant force that really shaped my destiny. >> hinojosa: your mom. >> my mom. she was the one individual that was always there to, you know, comfort me whenever i failed, and, you know, tell me, "well, look-- just get up and keep going, and, you know, you'll succeed eventually." >> hinojosa: but was it your dad, in fact, who bought you the one-way ticket? >> yes. my dad offered... >> hinojosa: one-way ticket to connecticut. >> to the united states, yes. >> hinojosa: to the united states. >> my dad was the figure of the superhuman individual who was not afraid of anything, who would face adversity with, you know, complete stoicism, and was completely sure of himself. a person who never really studied, never really went to
high school. >> hinojosa: what did he do? what kind of work did he do? >> he was, like, a foreman. he worked in construction, very large roads, bridges. >> hinojosa: so an engineer. >> sort of like an engineer, yeah. >> hinojosa: self taught. >> self taught. and... but he was, you know, sort of the... i guess the image that we all have of the latino, you know, macho man. he was... >> hinojosa: but macho in the positive sense. >> macho in the.. yes, in a very sort of manhood sense, and... >> hinojosa: provider. >> being able to not be afraid of anything. to always face the reality with a tremendous amount of self assurance, that he would somehow overcome. and i think that those kinds of tools were given to me, maybe by his example, which allowed me to go into the united states and succeed there. >> hinojosa: i love the story of when you're in high school in
connecticut, and, you know, here you are, and you're going to high school every day in a suit and a tie, and everybody thought that was really quite unique. they probably thought you were an extraordinary nerd, am i right? >> actually, you know, i was confused with the teachers. and there were times when the students would say, "hello, sir." and i was just one of them. >> hinojosa: and you actually taught yourself by immersion how to speak english. >> yes. i was... >> hinojosa: you were how old at that time? >> i was 18. i arrived in the us, like many immigrants... you know, this is nothing new, really. i mean, this is a land where people come and... >> hinojosa: and you arrived with a visa. >> i arrived with a visa. >> hinojosa: a student visa. >> to... well, i actually was taken in by a family of relatives of ours who... and i became their dependent. and in those days that was enough. you got, essentially, an immigrant visa. and i was able to go to a high school that was a public high
school. >> hinojosa: that's a very different... >> very unique, very different from what it is today. >> hinojosa: very different time from... i mean, when you think of, let's say, a young man like yourself growing up in costa rica, let's just say, who has dreams, who wants to go to the moon, and then he realizes that the only way he can do that is by coming to the united states, do his doors close right immediately because he says, "listen, i know what's happening in that country in terms of immigration and immigrants, i'll never make it in"? and do you see some of them, maybe... >> well, the world is a different place. i mean, the formula in those days was to come to the united states or go to the soviet union. those were the only two players. nowadays, the whole world is opening up to space. i mean, there's china, there is japan, there is... the european countries have their astronauts as well. malaysia has an astronaut. there's a whole sort of growing up that's taking place. and so the world is a different
place. and the solution to an immigrant or a person who wants to go into space is a different solution today than what it would be... what it was before. >> hinojosa: do you think that's a wonderful thing, or is there a part of you that thinks, you know, nasa is, like, the preeminent, you know, space exploration? maybe it's too bad that, you know, more people aren't going to be coming to this country to work with nasa to develop nasa, to make it... and instead they may choose to work for other countries or their home countries. >> well, in a way, that's really something that's happening. and in some ways, it has been a result of the space program. the space program in some ways has almost leveled the playing field. that is, today scientists, engineers, can do science and engineering pretty much anywhere on the planet, because you have access to instant communications pretty much anywhere. in fact, today we do rocket research in costa rica, of all places. you know, you would never imagine that, you know, we would
have a rocket research facility in the northwestern part of costa rica. >> hinojosa: and that's actually through your own company, and you're working in costa rica and the united states. but go ahead. >> that's right. but i think the point is that space is really a world endeavor. it's no longer the work of two counties, and the rest of us just are there just to witness this beautiful thing that's happening to the human race, but, you know, we're in the bleachers watching the game, and the ones that are playing the game are only two countries. that's no longer the case. everybody can get in the game now, because if you have access to good science information, education, you can play the game. >> hinojosa: so let me... i want to just return to one thing, because, you know, the fact that you are... and again, franklin, you represent so much of our human race. you know, again, just everything that makes a part of you-- you
know, chinese, european, indigenous from costa rica, now, you know, the united states. i mean, there is something to be said about the fact that people supported you in that way. they, in fact, helped you. you've probably heard about the dream act in this country. in a way, you were like the first recipient of the actual dream act, because you were, in essence, undocumented. you needed to be kind of brought in and supported. and people in the state of connecticut in the year... what year was that? >> that was in '69. >> hinojosa: and the entire state of connecticut said, "we want to support franklin chang-diaz. he may not have official papers, but he was welcomed here." >> absolutely. >> hinojosa: "and we are going to put our entire state behind him." and my god, look what we got in return. >> so very much the land of opportunity. and, you know, this is what we really ought to return to. you know, let the country bring
in all these, you know, masses of people who really want to make a better life, because this is the fresh new blood that this country uses to grow. you know, if we don't do that, we basically stagnate. so i am very strongly in favor of a more open policy for the united states. and i think in some ways closing our borders is bad news for us. >> hinojosa: i wonder how your perspective as an astronaut kind of informs that perspective. >> well, the other thing, maria, is that, like i said, the world has changed. and now we look at ourselves as citizens of a planet, not citizens of a country. and so i don't see myself as much as a citizen of the united states, or a citizen of costa
rica. i just see myself as a citizen of the planet earth. and the more you go out and fly in space, the more you realize that, you know, this little ball is really our home, and that we are all really in it. and all these borders that have been drawn, you know, are really sort of irrelevant at this point. there is a saying that one of my heroes, john young, often says, that when you are on your way to mars, you're going to spend most of your time looking out the window at this one little point of light that is the place where you came from, and this other little point of light which is the place that you're going to. and he says this is going to redefine loneliness. and i think he's right. >> hinojosa: oh, my god, that's extraordinary. i remember, you know, just... we were talking off set about what it does to you as a human being-- again, and i love the fact that you're like, "i'm not
a citizen primarily of any one place, but of this planet"-- what it does to you to have that distance, how it affects you. you know, does it make you incredibly hopeful, or does it make you a little sad, especially when you can... you were saying that even from space, you can see the geopolitics. >> you can see changes. i had the good fortune of, you know, having flown so many times, first flights in the mid '80s, and then the last flight in the early 2000s. and, you know, the world has changed. and you see the... you know, the weight of humanity on the planet, certainly from the distance at which we fly. you know, the orbit of the space... >> hinojosa: so what does it look like? >> it looks... you see, for example, the ravages of deforestation in one country versus another. they say... oftentimes they used
to say sort of romantically that from space you cannot see the borders between nations. and that's not true. >> hinojosa: wow. >> for example, you can see very clearly the border between egypt and israel, having to do with the way they handle water. you can see very well the border between the united states and mexico. you can see the border between guatemala and mexico. >> hinojosa: and so those three, like, what do you see? the united states in terms of... >> the density of crops in the north of the rio grande is much higher. and the density of crops in the south of the border is not as high. you know, it's noticeable. and because you're looking at it from such a distance, you see it as a straight line. and nature usually doesn't make straight lines like that. you see borders between states in brazil, for example where, you know, deforestation is taking place in one state and not in the other. why?
it has to do with the way people live, the way people, you know, decide... >> hinojosa: you could have made a choice to become, let's say, a human rights activist, traveling the world, talking about, you know, land usage and human rights. but in fact, you have been working for 32 years on developing a rocket that is powered in a different way than regular rockets that would get us to mars, your way... >> very fast. >> hinojosa: ...39 days. and i love the way you say, "very fast." i'm like, "okay 39 days to mars." versus a total of how many months? >> seven or eight months, typically in a mission today, yes. >> hinojosa: and you actually have been working on this for 32 years. so how close... are you meeting deadline? >> we are, actually. we have now... we're firing this rocket in the laboratory in our facilities in houston. we have a research facility there.
the company has it. and we can it the vasimir engine. and the particular engine that we are testing is called the vx200. it's got its own little designation. it's a 200 kilowatt engine. it's the most powerful plasma rocket in operation in the world today. >> so for those of us who are not, you know, physicists, and walk around thinking... so a plasma powered rocket versus... >> a chemical rocket. >> hinojosa: a chemical rocket. >> typically the rockets that we see launching from cape kennedy or whatever they see on tv are chemical rockets. they've been around for, you know, almost a century now. and this technology is the technology that took us to the moon, got us to the moon, you know, gets a space station orbiting. but it's not the technology that's going to really get us to mars. it is too slow. >> hinojos for so long, that it's too slow, how come we have continued to hear that nasa is working on trying to get to mars
when you're basically saying, "yeah, they have been, but everybody knows that it's going to take too long," and therefore cost a lot more money, and probably not be green, if there is such a thing? >> well, you know, nasa, just like a very large organization, is very hard to turn. >> hinojosa: it's a bureaucracy. >> as they say, it's a ship, you know, which is moving and has a tremendous amount of inertia, and it's very difficult to make a course... significant course correction. now, president obama has outlined new guidelines for nasa, having to do with what they call game changing technologies. you know, focus on the technology, not so much on the mission right now, but on the technology, that enables the mission. >> hinojosa: and you think that that's the right way? >> and i think that is the right thing to do. i think it is sort of strong medicine going on right now, and i think that the agency is suffering from this very strong dose of very strong medicine. but it's a necessary change.
it's something that we should have done, you know, ten years ago, or more. >> hinojosa: well, but for those people who just say, "you know what? why would humans who are not doing such a good job of taking care of this ball," as you say, this little ball that you see from so far away, our planet... we're not doing such a good job. i mean, we have wars, we have environmental destruction. why would we want to export that to mars, that looks so beautiful from down here? why would you want to do that? >> well, i mean, really, space exploration is all about survival, really. it's about survival of humanity. and we have no choice. we have to explore. in fact, the space program really, i say often, began when people walked out of their caves-- the first time that people actually went out to explore. and the frontier has been pushed further and further. but i think that in exploring
space, we are ensuring our survival. and people talk about, you know, the destination. we're going to go to mars, we're going to go to, you know, an asteroid. you know, we're going to the stars. that's where we're going. these are all... the other ones are just simple waypoints. >> hinojosa: we're going to the stars. and tell me how, by going to the stars, that is ensuring our human survival. >> as-- again, i quote my hero-- john young says, we are a species with no redundancy. that is the human species. if something happens to our planet, we are history. in fact, it's a history no one can write, you know? if our planet were to be hit by a collusion with an asteroid or be suffered from, you know, a super earthquake, or some major
catastrophe on the planet, we have no place to go. humanity as a whole is confined to this one spacecraft. we have a... we are a single planet species. and we need to remedy that. as every space person knows, you always have to have redundancy. and you really want to let humanity explore, and move out into space. >> hinojosa: but i immediately wonder... i'm like, "well, i don't know if i would have the money to pay for a ticket to get to mars." >> exactly. >> hinojosa: and therefore that only the elite, the super-elite... >> it is now the super-elite. that's who flies right now. but if we do this, then the same thing that's happening today with air travel will happen with space. >> hinojosa: oh, please, no. the image of getting to space looking like an airport in the united states of america is just kind of scary.
how do you live... i mean, you actually know this, franklin chang-diaz. you know that something catastrophic in fact could happen to our earth-- not our country, our earth, our universe-- at any moment. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: you walk around with that. >> sure. you know, we are not really that important sort of in the cosmic, you know, big picture. planets come and go. and, you know, humanity is not really such an important element in the makeup of the universe. so we could easily disappear without anything important happening. >> hinojosa: that's so hard to hear. but do you believe that there is life beyond? >> well, you know, we have never... we have not found it. but i find that it would be more extraordinary if we really, truly were alone. because you look at the... you
know, the stars in the sky, and the more you find, you know, the tremendous amount of stars and planets around these stars, we are not in the center of anything. we're not in any special place. we live in a very sort of unimportant corner of our galaxy. and there's no reason why we would have to be the only ones that exist here. so i have a feeling that life outside of the earth is more the norm than the exception, that actually the universe is teeming with life. >> hinojosa: wow. >> and that we are going to find it eventually when we learn to travel fast. >> hinojosa: but if we can get a rocket that maybe might make its way to mars, how is it possible that we haven't really found that life beyond? >> mars is just around the corner. i mean, mars is just the beginning of our exploration. there is a lot more to explore, and we may find that in this
solar system, which is just a little tiny speck in the entire universe, that we may be the only ones as a civilization. but that doesn't say anything about all the other so-called extrasolar planets, all these other, you know, nearby stars that could have living conditions very similar to earth. and so we just have to develop the means to transport ourselves to these places. now, obviously we're not going to do it in the next few years, but we've got to start. we've got to start right now. >> hinojosa: so franklin, before i let you go, i'm sure that there will be some young people who are watching this. and you know the importance of, you know, especially as an astronaut, putting that hope in one of those children who have a dream like you did. so what do you want to say to these young kids who are thinking, "you know, i really want to go to space, but my school isn't good," you know, "my family life," or, "it's just... i find it too hard, but
i really want to go." >> well... >> hinojosa: what do you say to them? >> what i say to them, "you know, if i could make it, you certainly can make it." i was not a model student. i never was. i was not at the bottom of the class, but i was not at the top of the class. i was just a regular kid, a normal kid, that had the benefit of great parents. and i often say, "no one gets anywhere without someone else's help." and i had plenty of help. and i think lots of people are out there to help. so, you know, kids, go for it, you know? >> hinojosa: dream. >> and dream about it, and do it, and make your dreams happen. you know, the first human being that will walk on mars is a young girl or a young boy about, maybe, ten, 15 years old. and they're probably sitting in some classroom today, you know, wondering what they're going to do with their life. imagine that. >> hinojosa: okay, i will.
>> funding for "overheard" with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. >> evan: i'm evan smith. two decades ago he was bill clinton's secretary of labor. today he teaches public policy at u.c. berkeley and he's just published his 15th book, "saving capitalism for the many, not the few". he's robert reich. this is "overheard". [applause]. >> evan: let's be honest. is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? and how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa? you could say he made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. no, you saw a problem and, over time, took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you going to run for es