EAVESDROPPING IN HOUSTON

Overheard: Houston experts weigh in on the future of the Space City

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.

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.