Guest column

Houston can stay the Space City within medical and health innovation

If Houston wants to maintain its title as Space City, it needs to channel the innovation of its history as space exploration moves forward. Pexels

Space has captured the imagination of mankind since we first looked up at the night sky. We've reached out to touch the stars, and now endeavor to inhabit them.

Earlier this month, a prominent collection of experts on space health attended the first Space Health Innovation Conference co-hosted by the University of California, San Francisco, and Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

As NASA eyes a return to the moon with the Artemis Program, attendees of the Space Health Innovation Conference advanced a national discussion of human space exploration by seeking to manage the many health risks associated with humans during space flight. The event included NASA leadership, innovative companies, commercial space vendors, as well as leaders from the space health and life sciences communities.

The conference's goal is to inform, inspire and invite participation in the exciting challenge of optimizing health and medical management in space environments.

With its headquarters in Houston, TRISH partnered with the Human Research Program at Johnson Space Center to source and seed the best emerging health technologies to support NASA's space exploration. TRISH is based out of the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and is a consortium that includes the rich space pedigree of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. The Space Health Innovation Conference is the result of a grant by TRISH to UCSF. TRISH has also hosted Space Health focused events at the MIT Media lab and at Caltech.

TRISH's main charge is finding disruptive health technologies and new scientists to fuel the US Space Program. TRISH explores emerging areas of science that support health and human performance in the harsh environment of microgravity and high radiation. TRISH funds novel research in artificial intelligence, omics, human computer interfaces, behavioral health and beyond. Projects all share one goal: predicting and protecting future Mars explorers. And NASA leadership encourages TRISH to take the risks that could mean huge leaps forward.

Innovation and risk tolerance are hallmarks of Houston and its rich history. From the city's humble origins, to Jesse Jones's national financial leadership, to the building of the Houston Ship Channel, and to the explosion of the energy industry, Houston has always dared to leap forward. President John F. Kennedy's iconic speech entitled "Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort" declared the US ambition to embrace the new frontier of space and conquer the moon. Humble Oil donated the 1,620 acres for JSC to Rice University, who then sold the land to NASA for $20. (Humble Oil would later become Exxon Mobil.)

JSC housed flight control, space flight training, and the NASA Astronaut Corps. JSC gave Houston the nickname "Space City", which led to the naming of the local NBA team to be the Rockets and the local MLB team to be the Astros. JSC's support for the astronaut corps began with the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, which evaluated the Apollo astronauts upon return to Earth. And the Christopher C Kraft Mission Control facility has directed all crewed space flights since the early Gemini program. An American flag flies atop Mission Control at JSC every day that an American is in space. That flag has flown continuously since November 2, 2000.

Nearly two decades since Bill Shepherd first boarded the International Space Station, the conversation around supporting human health and performance in space continues. And Houston will continue to lead the way for all our sakes, in space and on terra firma.

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James Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer at Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

The panel of experts discussed the Space City's history — but also its future as a leader in space exploration. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Houston's been known as the Space City for about 50 years since "Houston" was the first word spoken from the surface of the moon. But whether or not that nickname will continue to stick was up for debate at a 2019 SpaceCom panel on November 21.

The panel, entitled "Regional Benefits of a Commercial Space Economy: Case Study Houston," the panelists set out to discuss the city's rich history of space exploration, as well as to answer the question of where Houston's space industry is headed.

"We could ask that question in a passive way, but my preference is that here in Houston we ask the question now, answer it, and be very proactive and deliberate about making sure we get the outcome that we want," says Vernon McDonald, senior vice president at KBR and moderator of the discussion.

If you missed the enlightening discussion, here are a few takeaways from the panelists.

"Houston is in this great position to be this beacon to lead entrepreneurs and inspire other regions to explore further."

Rick Jenet, director of the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy. Jenet, who is based in Brownsville, Texas, is working to develop a vibrant commercial space hub in South Texas. In a lot of ways, the area looks to Houston's history for its development, he says.

"We built a community of engineers and scientists and a workforce that's all vested in the outcome of the human space flight program."

Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines. The creation of the Johnson Space Center developed generations within the community of scientists and engineers, but, moving forward, Houston has to be intentional about building its talent base. "I'm very passionate about doing that here in Houston," Altemus adds.

"There's a beacon of hope for our community if we can organize around it and attract commercial business here to keep this city the Space City, but redefine ourselves as a commercial space hub."

Altemus says, adding that it's going to take further development, talent, and funds — like what's happening at the Houston Spaceport — to make this transition.

"Over the years, Houston took space for granted. Houston started to focus on the bigger industries that brought in funding and jobs."

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At the risk of being unpopular, Gonzalez mentions that the city's attention has been diverted from space exploration. However, he adds, there are new initiatives from the Greater Houston Partnership and Houston First that are picking up the slack.

"The answers to Houston delivering on its potential is going to be collaborations — how well we collaborate."

Harvin Moore, president at Houston Exponential. Houston is collaborative, and the city needs to make sure its resources are inclusive as commercial space develops in town.

"I'd like to say that Houston is the birthplace of human space flight, and in 50 years, I'd like to see the city be the leader and the point of the spirit for human exploration internationally and commercially out in mars and beyond.

Altemus responds when asked about the Space City's next 50 years.

"I think what Houston will be most proud of in 50 years is that we played an extremely important role in shaping how Texas leads the world in commercial space exploration."

Jenet, who mentions that there's space exploration innovation happening statewide.

"When you think about what [leading space exploration] company will be here fifty years from now, I don't think it's been created yet. But I would like that company to be here in Houston."

Gonzalez says, adding that the first trillionaire is likely to make his or her fortune in the space industry, and he wants that money here in Houston.

"A lot of our future is not going to be based on what huge companies or government are doing but much more about entrepreneurs."

Moore says, emphasizing the need for developing startup resources in Houston.