earthbound

Historic mission from Houston space tech company plans for splashdown

Ax-1 is headed back to Earth after 12 days of research on the ISS. Photo courtesy of SpaceX

Editor's note: Undocking was delayed again on April 19, and a new timeline has not been announced. The original story is below.

After spending 12 days in space, a historic commercial space mission will splash back down on Earth this week.

Houston-based Axiom Space’s first mission Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1), which took off April 8 and connected to the International Space Station, has announced its plans for undocking and splashdown.

After some initial bad weather postponed the process, the four-member private astronaut crew now is aiming to undock at about 9 pm tonight, April 19, and then land off the coast of Florida at around 2:24 pm tomorrow, April 20. Just like launch, the coverage of both events will be available at Axiom's website.

The mission on SpaceX’s spacecraft sent four multinational private astronauts — Commander Michael López-Alegría, Pilot Larry Connor, Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe, and Mission Specialist Mark Pathy — to the ISS to conduct research and familiarize Axiom with launch, docking, and more.

Axiom Space, which reached $1 billion valuation and joined the Houston unicorn club last year after a $130 million investment round, is working on the first commercial space station to replace the ISS. The first launch of that mission is expected in late 2024. In the meantime, Axiom has a series of commercial launches to the existing station currently in orbit in order to prepare for development and orchestration of Axiom Station.

The Ax-1 mission, which has provided daily updates, has conducted over 20 research projects and even hit a few milestones, including:

  • The first-ever music duet performance in space — Commander López-Alegría and Neo-Classical Piano Prodigy BLKBOK made music and space history with their piano and keyboard duet
  • The Aging and Heart Health investigation, an experiment from the Mayo Clinic — a study that analyzes human cells for genetic markers of cellular aging and explores cardiac-like cells' adaptation to microgravity
  • Observation of Transient Luminous Events — Specialist Stibbe completed a space observation experiment and photographed a lightning storm over Darwin, Australia, to enhance understanding of the electrical processes in the atmosphere and to determine whether there’s a connection with climate change
  • Testing of the Holoportation system — Mission Specialist Pathy set up two-way AI technology that will allow the ability of future crew members to explore deep space with the ability to virtually bring friends, family, and physicians close with them so that they can get an on-Earth experience
  • Several outreach calls to Earth to STEM students from around the world — this included a call to children at Space Center Houston

Axiom shares more details on its mission research projects — which span technologies such as future space habitats, cancer research, and devices to purify air on space stations — online.

“As the first step on a path to building a diverse, thriving economy in low-Earth orbit, Axiom has partnered with leaders in academia and industry to bring new users and new investigations in research to the space station,” says Christian Maender, director of In-space Manufacturing and Research for Axiom Space, in a news release. “The collection of biological and technological tests during the Ax-1 mission represent a breadth of research that will inform everything from human health considerations to novel infrastructure and design for our future homes away from Earth, beginning with Axiom Station.”

The four-person crew spent 12 days on the ISS. Photo courtesy of NASA

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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