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Houston-based NASA technology strategist aims to connect the entity to startups and technologies across the country

Steven Gonzalez wants to give NASA technology to startups for free. Courtesy of NASA

NASA has 1,400 technologies that are available for licensing across industries, but only 20 percent of those technologies have been licensed — traditionally by mid- to large-sized companies.

NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez, who's had a 30-year career at NASA at the Johnson Space Center, is responsible for moving these technologies out into the community. About four years ago, his department created a program to target startups and engage them with the organization's technology. Startup NASA is a program in which startups can license NASA technology for free for three years before the licensing fees kick in.

"We thought that once we created this program we'd have startups coming to break the door down to get these technologies, and that isn't the case," Gonzalez tells InnovationMap. "So, what I've been focusing on is trying to find was to connect to ecosystems across the country to introduce them to this program and our technology and find people who will be the bridge between us and these ecosystems."

All this month, with the world's focus on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Gozalez is able to benefit from this momentum and reenergized focus on space. He spoke with InnovationMap about his career in space and the future Houston will play in the next 50 years.

InnovationMap: What initially got you interested in space and how did it turn into a career?

Steven Gonzalez: Star Trek, the original series. I had the desire to be Captain Kirk and be on the Starship Enterprise. I was born in New York, and raised in the Northeast. In 8th grade, I already had the bug to go to NASA and be the first in my family to go to college. I remember having all my classes picked out with college course credit, and — by this time we had moved to New Jersey, and we were only the second Spanish family there — the guidance counselor looked at my schedule and told me I would be better going to autoshop.

I went to Boston University and then got my master's at Texas A&M University. Right after A&M, I started at the Johnson Space Center in 1988, and I was working in mission control bringing in new technology. I remember getting there and expecting to see something along the lines of the Starship Enterprise, and it looked the same as it did from the Apollo timeframe. After that, I trained astronauts for a couple years before going back and working to bring the new control center online. The Houston Chronicle compared it to the tech on the Starship Enterprise, and I finally felt like I had arrived.

IM: From your strategic roles to now managing technology, what are some of the challenges you've faced in your NASA career?

SG: I looked at the 20-year strategy for the Johnson Space Center and how to get it positioned for the growth of commercial and international space. It was a great role, and the challenge for NASA predicting a long-term strategy was that every four or eight years, we get a new president, and when we get a new president, we get a new direction. We did all this strategy planning and using all the tools — this was in 2006 before we knew what Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were up to — and we said that over 20 years, we predicted that the commercial market would grow and our role would have to shift. That was a hard message to swallow at that time when we had so much going on.

After working in strategy, I shifted to focus on partnerships, and now my role is technology transfer. After most of my career focused on impacting life space, now this last part of my career is focused on impacting life here on earth. My role now is to move technology out and find technology to bring in — mostly moving technology into startups around the country.

Now, my challenge in my role of moving technology out is that, especially when we go to startups, people think of NASA technology as being space technology. But, of our 1,400 technologies we have, so many of them have already impacted all different industries. So, trying to get people to figure out how to connect to the startup ecosystems is another challenge.

IM: What's been the effect on NASA now that commercialization has ramped up?

SG: First, we were created with a two-fold mission — to explore and to benefit humanity. From day one we have been moving our technology out. Unfortunately, we at NASA have the reputation of giving to the world Tang and Velcro, and neither one of that is true. The reality is so much more fantastic. The camera on our phones and LASIK came from NASA technology. There's a technology I love to talk about. We were working with Texas Children's Hospital, and they had a challenge of moving premature infants from room to room. The gurney would vibrate quite a bit and hurt their internal organs — some would even pass away from this. Our astronauts train two to three hours a day to keep their muscles and bones up and running, so they exercise on treadmills and bikes on the space station. Left unchecked, those vibrations from the equipment would ruin the experiments on the space station. So, we have the technology and expertise here in Houston that we worked with TCH and created a carrier that allows these children to be transferred without any harm to them.

The second part is that our technology is seeding this new commercial space market. Back in the '90s here in Houston, we developed a technology that was an inflatable habitat. When we send astronauts to the moon or mars, they need a spacious habitat that isn't too heavy to be transported via spacecraft. So, we created that technology, and Bob Bigelow, who owns a bunch of hotels and wanted to have the first hotel in space, long story short, he licensed our technology, created this hotel that's circling space and waiting until Uber can transport his paying customers up there. In the process, he thought that NASA and the ISS can use it in the meantime. So it's a technology we started, but we didn't have to commercialize it, someone else did the full development of it.

IM: So, it sounds like it's much more collaborative of a relationship between NASA and commercial entities than it is competitive, would you say?

SG: I'm glad you brought that up. A lot of times people think it's a competition. In the 1960s, it was a competition between us and the Russians. Then, the space station became this collaborative community. With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another. We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from. Also, we still are doing things that are tougher to make money on. We do things that has no return on investment, and the commercial companies are focusing on things they can make a market for.

IM: What role do you see Houston playing in the future of space?

SG: Right now, it's a bit premature to really talk about anything, but we're in conversations with various startup organizations about growth and collaborations. Between NASA, the Houston Spaceport, and the annual SpaceCom, Houston in an incredible position to be the hub for this growing, trillion-dollar commercial space market. Through events like SpaceCom, we are a hub for a lot of international activity. Houston already being a hub for international travel and business already, it could be an international gateway for the space industry.

IM: What does Space City Month mean to you and the city of Houston?

SG: We've always been the Space City, but for a while there, it was taken for granted. It's part of our history, but it's nice to see it brought back into the foreground to realize that it's not just history, it's who we are today. It's been better over the past few years as we've seen this conversation increasing. This anniversary is bringing back to the forefront how Houston embraces space for the future.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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.