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Houston Spaceport general manager wants to connect the city to the rest of the world

Commercial space technology is being developed at this moment, and Arturo Machuca wants to make sure the Houston Spaceport is ready for the technology when it's finished. Courtesy of the Houston Airport System

In 2015, Houston became the 10th licensed spaceport in the United States. Now, four years later, it's Arturo Machuca's job as general manager of the Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport to guide the institution from idea into reality.

Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport are co-located just 15 miles outside of downtown Houston and just north of the Johnson Space Center. While major players in commercial space exploration develop the technology for space travel, Machuca and his team at the Houston Airport Systems are working to build Houston's Spaceport to be ready for that technology when it arrives.

Machuca spoke with InnovationMap for the final installment of this month's space-focused interviews in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your career to date. 

Arturo Machuca: I am a very fortunate man in that I have had the chance to be involved in this project that's so relevant to the city of Houston. My background has been in aviation for 38 years. I've worked 21 years in commercial aviation. I've also worked in air service development, working with airlines to add new routes to and from Houston. I've worked in corporate aviation as well.

Now past 10 years since July 2009 been with the Houston Airport System. I was first based at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, then in 2012 I was fortunate enough to work with director Mario Diaz on the inception of the spaceport plans. In 2015, we became the 10th commercial spaceport in the nation.

It's been so much fun. It's so good to come to work where you get to say, "I'm having fun with this."

IM: With the Houston Spaceport being only the 10th licensed in the United States, has it been challenging laying the groundwork?

AM: There has been some challenges in that we are adapting our infrastructure to serve as the commercial space, including very in depth due diligence. But at the same time, it's been easy because of the fact that we are distinguished amongst other spaceports. We are the only truly urban spaceport in the world, which makes it easier from my perspective. Plus, we are the home to Johnson Space Center and a number of space companies based here. While challenging, it's been very good to have those things on our side.

IM: What’s the big picture goal of the Houston Spaceport?

AM: Our goal will be to one day connect Houston to the world by commercial spaceflight. Companies like Virgin Galactic are developing their technology for point-to-point transportation, or space flight. We have no control over that — it's up to them. In the meantime, we continue to take advantage of existing structure and turning it into the spaceport. We use what we already have at Ellington Airport. We're serving aviation today until commercial spaceflight gets here.

IM: The Spaceport just broke ground on Phase I of the transformation. What are the priorities for that initiative?

AM: We have nearly 1,000 acres of land that we can develop. Our vision is to create a cluster of aerospace and aviation companies that allow for us to get to space in a quicker fashion. We have chosen four major areas of development to focus on phase one of the spaceport: drones, micro satellites, aviation and commercial spaceflight, and data and analytics. We're building the neighborhood, if you will, so that companies can come and set up on our land.

We've been working with universities, and about a month ago we just announced the Edge workforce training center where San Jacinto College will train students to support the industry.

IM: The spaceport has quite a few educational partners. Why has that been such a core component to the project?

AM: About 2.5 years ago we were working with a proposal to work with Blue Origin — a company owned by Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon. Blue Origin was looking for a location to build their rocket engine, and we thought the Houston Spaceport was the perfect place. The process took a little over a year, and I am proud to say that we made it to the final two cities. We were competing with Huntsville, Alabama, which is known as Rocket City. We didn't win, but when we went back and asked for feedback, they said that Huntsville offered a tremendous amount of educational support. We clearly realized that it's important to have that direct connection.

IM: What’s Houston’s future role in space?

AM: I think that Houston is poised for success because of the existing components we already have in place, like the Johnson Space Center. The city of Houston is working very closely with the JSC to make sure we remain mission relevant.

Pushing into commercial space flight, I believe that Houston is poised for a tremendous future. We are learning to better coordinate with the players on the government side and the private industry. I envision Houston becoming even a stronger player in the next 50 years because of the development and the growth of assets. I can see us serving as a city where we take passengers from one end of the world to the others using commercial space flight.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

A Houston space medicine research organization has partnered with a video game maker that has created surgery simulation technology. Photo via levelex.com

A Houston-based organization affiliated with NASA has teamed up with a video game company to advance virtual simulation in space medicine.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, in partnership with NASA in a consortium led by Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has advanced a new approach for space medicine using video game technology by collaborating with video game company, Level Ex.

"We discovered Level Ex through a process of landscaping the many virtual simulation companies that were out there," says Andrew Peterman Director of Information System at TRISH. "We especially noted those that were on the cutting edge of the technology."

Based in Houston, TRISH aims to collaborate with the best and the brightest to revolutionize space health, providing grants to companies with innovative concepts. With Level Ex, they found a new approach to decode earthly medical technologies in space.

Level Ex, a Chicago-based company created in 2015 was founded to provide training games for doctors to use to practice surgeries and procedures. The games are interactive, with the virtual patient reacting to the actions of the player. The training simulations consist of in-depth and physics-driven medical simulations that are verified by doctors in their advisory board.

"We're hoping to completely change the ways that doctors stay up to speed," says Level Ex founder-and-CEO Sam Glassnberg.

With their ongoing collaboration with TRISH, they have a challenge that's out of this world. In space, astronauts have limited space for medical tools and run on a limited crew. This makes providing basic medical training to all astronauts especially important.

Especially since the body begins to react to the new environmental conditions of space missions. The effects can be small or lead to new changes or challenges for astronauts who take on long-range missions. Astronauts may see their bodies slowly start to lose bone and muscle mass. Their fluid begins to shift toward their head, leading to increased risks of hypertension and thrombosis.

All of these are challenges NASA is working to address with the help of gaming technology from Level Ex that innovates the technology with higher-level capability and training. Combining video game technology and medical simulation applications to incorporate and explore the interplay of environmental conditions found in space.

"What we really liked about Level Ex is that they have an amazing team both on the clinical and technical side, says Peterman. "They are a group of former big-name game developers who along with clinical experts have married technology and medicine with their platform producing full in engine physics-driven real simulations rather than video playback."

The astronauts will train using simulations that allow them to practice a procedure in zero gravity conditions and even simulate the gravity conditions of Mars. The game will also allow astronauts to get their own on-screen avatar with their medical information thus allowing fellow astronauts to gain more practice and experience with fewer variables in space.

The advanced medical simulation platform has potential for commercial uses on earth, improving the range of the technology to simulate new, rare, and complex scenarios across a range of medical specialties, allowing doctors to practice a range of difficult scenarios without putting patient lives at risk.

Peterman says that the partnership is expected to continue into the future for immediate applications along with other innovations in astronaut healthcare, including autonomous frameworks to provide medical knowledge in outer space.