Space city win

Global space startup and innovation connector opens Houston branch

Australia-based Moonshot has opened a Houston chapter. Miriam Espacio / Pexels

It's almost an understatement to say that Houston's space economy is taking off like a rocket.

On May 28, four companies in the Houston area — Axiom Space Inc., Boeing Co., KBRwyle, and NanoRacks LLC — were tasked with helping chart NASA's course in the space economy, whose global value is projected to climb as high as $3 trillion by 2040. Three days later, Houston-based Intuitive Machines LLC was awarded a $77.2 million contract to send as many as five NASA payloads to the moon.

And a month later, on June 26, officials broke ground on the first phase of Houston Spaceport, a 450-acre project at Ellington Airport that will serve as a sort of control center for aerospace research and manufacturing, and commercial space operations.

Then, on July 19 — a day ahead of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 man-on-the-moon mission — Australia-based startup Moonshot Space Co. launched a chapter in Houston to help foster the region's multibillion-dollar space economy. Through its programming, which will kick off this fall, Moonshot seeks to corral entrepreneurs, students, job seekers, business executives, investors, university researchers, government officials, and others in an effort to nurture and promote Houston's space economy.

Troy McCann, founder and CEO of Moonshot, believes Houston — home to NASA's Johnson Space Center — can emerge as the epicenter of the global space economy.

"You'd have to have been living under a rock for the past 50 years not to be aware of Houston's stellar aerospace ecosystem," McCann says. "It's got both the historical credibility and a suite of … successful commercial space ventures based there."

"We want to help fine-tune Houston's space economy by providing a proven framework to elevate people and their ideas into successful teams and scalable businesses," McCann adds, "and to create the industries of the future and solve humanity's greatest challenges."

The Houston chapter, a nonprofit venture, is Moonshot's first in the U.S. and second outside Australia. Nathan Johnson, a Houston attorney who specializes in space law and business development, has been tapped to direct it.

"We're in the process of starting chapters across the globe because we believe that the next Nikola Tesla or Marie Curie is out there somewhere, but they don't have access to the resources they need to change the world for the better," McCann says. "Today, the average person has the ability to start a commercial space program for less than the cost of a fast-food franchise."

Johnson says Houston's prominence as NASA's hub for human spaceflight, its status as the "Energy Capital of the World," and the presence of the Texas Medical Center combine to make Space City a potent force in the space economy.

"My hope is to see Houston continue to lead in space and become a hub for the next wave of space commercialization," Johnson says. "We have a wide breadth of industries, and I would like to see that terrestrial expertise extend to new market applications in space."

If Houston does evolve into a nucleus for the global space economy, it stands to reap sky-high financial rewards. Various analysts forecast the global space economy will soar to between $1 trillion and $3 trillion by 2040, up from an estimated $415 billion in 2018.

"Space is and will be a global endeavor, depending on a strong economy, smart industries, and a talented workforce," Johnson says. "Houston already has all of those things, continues to actively develop them at all levels of the community, and does so in a way that reflects the world's population."

The NASA-backed Translational Research Institute for Space Health is innovating the future of life in space. Libby Neder Photography

For Dorit Donoviel, innovation means risk — and there's not a lot that's riskier than traveling to and living in outer space. As director of Houston-based TRISH — the Translational Research Institute for Space Health — Donoviel is tasked by NASA to take some risks in order to innovate.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk.

"For us to take risks in order to reduce risk is a really amazing opportunity."

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

Some of the issues TRISH is working to provide solutions for range from protecting from radiation exposure on the moon and mars to personal health care — astronauts have to be a doctor to themselves when they are on the space station.

"That's a totally new model for health care, so we have to solve all those problems and invest in them," Donoviel says.

In a lot of ways, TRISH connects the dots of modern space research, explains Donoviel. The organization taps into its researcher network, as well as into startups and companies with innovative technologies, in order to deliver the best space innovations to NASA.

Donoviel goes into more details on how TRISH interacts with entrepreneurs as well as what new technologies the organization has seen success with in the episode. Stream the podcast below, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.