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Rice University's Space Institute director on the future of exploration, development, and the role Houston will play in space

David Alexander of the Rice University Space Institute says Houston's past accomplishments in space aren't all the Space City has to offer. Photo courtesy of Rice University

While the city is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission that got man to the moon, this month should also be about looking forward to the Space City's future.

From commercial space travel momentum to upcoming governmental projects, there's a lot in the works for space, and Houston will play a big role in both sides of the equation, says David Alexander, director of the Rice University Space Institute.

"In Houston, we tend to think of space as a destination, but it really is a resource," he says. "And we need to be thinking about it as a resource."

New, and increasingly more accessible technologies are changing the landscape — especially for universities. Smaller satellite devices, called CubeSacs, are so easy to build and launch into space that students are able to it themselves, Alexander says, and they are. These projects across the country are collecting new data on a massive level.

"Students these days really want to solve meaningful problems rather than just academic problems, and space is way of giving them access to what information and data that can help them with that," Alexander says.

Alexander shared his thoughts and professional opinion on some of the exciting advancements the space industry has on its radar — and where Houston comes into play for these initiatives.

InnovationMap: What got you really interested in space exploration?

David Alexander: I was always interested in science, but one of the things got really interested in the human aspect of space was an event at the Rice Baker Institute a few years ago, shortly after the cancellation of the shuttle program. It was just a great discussion about the space in general, but what kind of hit me hard was the fact that a lot of history — we're talking about 50 years in space since the Apollo mission — has influenced the whole world. Modern human history has been hugely impacted by the presence of space, and a lot of that happened in Houston. And, some of the people who've made it happen are still around, and that day at the Baker Institute, some of them were there. So, that hit home for me.

IM: What are some of the focuses of the Rice Space Institute?

DA: We've got the outreach part, then we have the the science, the research, and then student activities and the connection to NASA that we have.

We have a professional master's program for students who are not particularly interested in research, but what they want to do is combine management and business training with technical training in science and engineering related to space. We've been building that program all for over the last six years or so. We also have this fairly popular public lectures series that we've been running since January of 2011.

One of the prime reasons for institutes at Rice, which are small entities, is to bring faculty from different disciplines together. And so that's been our primary effort when it comes to research. We'll try and get some of the bioengineers, for instance, working with NASA on the human side, and get some of the engineers working with NASA on things like sensor wireless technologies.

IM: What does the future of space exploration look like to you?

DA: I think one of the things that we're seen this helping drive that difference between now and then is the growth in the private and commercial enterprises in space. I think that what we're finding is that space is becoming more accessible. The actual cost of getting to space is radically coming down, and the kind of resources that we can put in space and the capability of these resources is changing.

IM: Do you think there's been a resurgence of interest in space lately?

DA: NASA made space kind of look routine, which is good because you want astronauts to be safe and you want your hardware to survive. So, it became less exciting. However, within the government side of things, that has been a huge steady progress. You can follow the path from the technology development all the way through to today. But I think from the general public's perception, people like Elon Musk, even though he has some ambitious ideas, has seen successes with reusable rockets with these landings. And people like Jeff Bezos, who are also developing their own rockets and their own plans for space, have kind of opened people's eyes again a little bit. I think they have added a bit of star power, and they have shown an excitement for space that's infectious.

IM: What does the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission mean to the city of Houston?

DA: There's a balance that we have to find between looking too much in the past — you don't want to see your successes in the rearview. I think we should rightly be proud of the Apollo history and what it did for the region. The history part is really important, and, in my opinion, the biggest thing that came out of Apollo is the fact that so many young people got interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. I firmly believe that created the means by which the U.S. economy drove the world.

IM: What's Houston's role in the future of space exploration?

DA: On the space exploration side, NASA has announced that we're going to go back to the moon by 2024. Now, that's a huge challenge. The NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who's a Rice graduate, is aware of those challenges. Whether it's 2024 or if we have to wait until 2028, a lot of that work is going to be driven by what's being done in Houston, particularly the Johnson Space Center. There's a big rocket that they're developing, as well as the Orion capsule, Houston has a big role in those.

On the commercial side, there's the Houston Spaceport, which was the 10th licensed commercially licensed spaceport in the United States. There's now 12 within the United States, but Houston's spaceport is the only one located in a large city. There's a great company out there called Intuitive Machines, and they just got one of the lunar landing contracts. So, sometime between now and 2021, there may actually be a piece of hardware land on the moon that was built here in Houston.

IM: What should the Houston innovation ecosystem be focused on?

DA: The pieces are all there. We just need to work together to get them working coherently. If you get someone who understands space data talking to one of these companies who are trying to monitor flooding, for example, then both of those groups will grow together. We need to start bringing them together.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Five research teams are studying space radiation's effect on human tissue. Photo via NASA/Josh Valcarcel

A Houston-based organization has named five research projects to advance the understanding of space radiation using human tissue. Two of the five projects are based in Houston.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, is based at Baylor College of Medicine and funds health research and tech for astronauts during space missions. The astronauts who are headed to the moon or further will be exposed to high Galactic Cosmic Radiation levels, and TRISH wants to learn more about the effects of GCR.

"With this solicitation, TRISH was looking for novel human-based approaches to understand better Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) hazards, in addition to safe and effective countermeasures," says Kristin Fabre, TRISH's chief scientist, in a news release. "More than that, we sought interdisciplinary teams of scientists to carry these ideas forward. These five projects embody TRISH's approach to cutting-edge science."

The five projects are:

  • Michael Weil, PhD, of Colorado State University, Colorado — Effects of chronic high LET radiation on the human heart
  • Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD of Columbia University, New York — Human multi-tissue platform to study effects of space radiation and countermeasures
  • Sharon Gerecht, PhD of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland — Using human stem-cell derived vascular, neural and cardiac 3D tissues to determine countermeasures for radiation
  • Sarah Blutt, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Use of Microbial Based Countermeasures to Mitigate Radiation Induced Intestinal Damage
  • Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Counteracting space radiation by targeting neurogenesis in a human brain organoid model

The researchers are tasked with simulating radiation exposure to human tissues in order to study new ways to protect astronauts from the radiation once in deep space. According to the release, the tissue and organ models will be derived from blood donated by the astronaut in order to provide him or her with customized protection that will reduce the risk to their health.

TRISH is funded by a partnership between NASA and Baylor College of Medicine, which also includes consortium partners Caltech and MIT. The organization is also a partner to NASA's Human Research Program.

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