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Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

You've heard "it's not rocket science" throughout your life, but but turns out that aerospace exploration — even in 2021 — is still very hard. Photo via Pexels

If there is anything that goes hand in hand so perfectly, it's Houston and Space. Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and is home to revolutionary space research projects and spaceflight training for both crew members and flight controllers. While it's every kid's dream to become an astronaut, have you ever wondered why rocket science is actually so difficult?

Though the space race of the '70s has been over for some time, the new space race — the race to Mars and the commercialization of space tourism — has just started. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are spearheading the "Billionaire space race." But even with their billions being put into developing spaceports, NASA rocket partnerships, and planning future Mars missions, rocket science is just as difficult to implement as it was the first time around.

So why, even with billions of dollars at their disposal and many companies pushing for more funding, are scientists and engineers still struggling to make rocket travel an everyday thing? Here are some of the countless reasons why rockets science is insanely difficult, no matter how much money you throw at it.

Small talent pool

The Apollo astronauts were the best of the best — and the hundreds of thousands of engineers and rocket scientists behind the scenes were just as talented. But getting to the point in one's career where you have the right background experience and the right hands-on work and real-life experience to create a safe rocket is difficult. The talent pool that SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin are working with is extremely small and notoriously competitive. As these programs continue to build in credibility, it may be easier to find talent, but few engineers want to be tied to a failed launch.

The risk of failure

Usually, when you fail at something like a math test or a driver's exam, the ramifications aren't too big. But with space travel, a small problem can quickly turn into a deadly situation for those on board the rocket. Think back to the Challenger explosion in 1986. The success of previous missions (not to mention the administrative corner-cutting) led to a false sense of security when in reality they were still embarking on the insanely difficult feat of launching humans into space. The risk of failure is so great, many commercial manufacturers are cautious to put their weight behind an operation that could in all likelihood come crashing back down to Earth.

Rocket construction

Think back to when you were in school learning about Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's a simple idea, but complex in reality. That law of motion forms the basis for rocket science: the combustion of rocket fuel down into the earth is one action, so the opposite reaction causes the rocket to launch upward into space. But the engineering that's needed for a launch to take place is the hard part.

As mentioned in a 2012 NPR article, there are millions of pieces in every rocket, and "therefore millions of opportunities to make errors — to make errors in calculations, to make errors in construction." The devastating Challenger mission failure is often attributed to faulty O-rings — it's a simple piece of equipment and can often be overlooked.

Even after hundreds of successful launches over the years, rocket construction is just as complex, and the process of shooting humans into space cannot be distilled to a law of motion when there is so much more involved to make that process happen.

Public perception

Throughout the '70s, Americans were enthralled by the idea of the space race and becoming the first country to set foot on the moon. But the public's passion died down after that initial landing. Today, the public perception of current space projects is making doing the actual rocket science and engineering difficult.


Objections against NASA's waste of taxpayer money on "futile" missions and the idea that space travel will only be for the mega-wealthy make any conversation around actual scientific discovery second to politics. Not to even mention the newly minted Space Force. Engineers and scientists have to navigate a hoard of political, financial, and PR battles to even get to do the work of getting people back into space.

The bottom line

Rocket science is thought of as one of the most difficult fields for a reason. Building a piece of technology capable of going into space and even housing people inside is a relatively new feat when considering the span of time. As the billionaire space race continues to unfold, scientists and engineers behind the scenes are creating feats of engineering on a regular basis that will shape the future of space travel. But, if you want to just get a taste of space life, without all the schooling, then a trip to the Johnson Space Center is for you.

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Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

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Building Houston

 
 

Houstonian Joe Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is aimed at tapping into AI and data analytics for for space domain awareness and threat detection. Photo via Getty Images

As artificial intelligence continues to expand its sphere of influence, Spring-based expert Joe Schurman is looking to take this technology to an out-of-this-world space.

With his background includes working with advising defense and aerospace organizations like NASA, Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is perfectly aligned with what he’s been working towards since 2019. The company aims to be a multi-tiered subscription service and application that will be the world’s first cloud native data and AI platform for phenomenon-based data analysis that can analyze data from any source for space domain awareness and threat detection, according to Schurman.

The platform aims to provide end-to-end data and AI analysis, publish insights, build community, and provide cloud, data, and software consulting. PhenomAInon deploys data and AI services alongside modern data and AI engineering, per the website, to surface insights to explorers, researchers, organizations, publications, and communities through advanced data and AI analysis. Schurman has worked with the U.S. government's task force for unidentified anomalous phenomenon — any perceived aerial phenomenon that cannot be immediately identified or explained — known as UAPTF. The tool will run sensitive information and then get back custom video analysis. The public version of the tool will give the public the option to view videos and cases, and form their own analysis.

“We are working together with multiple teams both public and private to continue to curate the data sets, clear documents for public review, and provide advanced analytics and AI capabilities never seen before to the public,” Schurman tells InnovationMap. “From a data and analytics perspective, we are applying machine learning and advanced analytics to find correlations and anomalies in the incident reports across multiple data sets.

"Some of these are public, some are private, and some we are clearing for public review," he continues. "The analytics will go far beyond incident reporting and showcase heat maps, correlative incident maps to key private and public sector facilities, and trends analysis never reported — e.g. incident reporting correlated with time, weather, FAA, and drone flight data, etc. We also have a new content analysis platform where users will be able to eventually run their own AI and ML analysis on their own videos.”

Schurman was first able to show this to the world in 2019, when as an adviser for To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, or TTSA. He also appeared on History Channel’s “Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation” to show the Pentagon’s former Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program head and TTSA Director of Special Programs Luis Elizondo how the AI platform could be helpful in tracking data related to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

Now, PhenomAInon's app is a work-in-progress. While it soft launched in May of 2022, Schurman says they have several data sets that are awaiting clearing from the U.S. government, as well as the content analysis tool in development to launch possibly by the summer. Schurman also hopes they will curate the largest library of incident videos, images, and audio recordings.

The subject of UAP continues to attract new discussions from government officials and industry professions across aerospace, academia, and more. In Houston, Rice University's Woodson Research Center and its humanities department host one of the largest archives of UAP and paranormal data, notes, and research that include documents from CIA programs on remote viewing.

Schurman says he's looking to provide even more data and information in this space.

“This phenomenon, it’s implications to multiple aspects of our lives and possible security threats, all come down to a data problem and the organizations that have been in place to-date just have not had the level of cloud, data and AI engineering capabilities we take for granted and have access to in the private sector,” says Schurman. “My goal is to bring this all together, starting with PhenomAInon.”

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