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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

 
 

Register for some of these informative online events happening throughout the month of December. Getty Images

It's the last monthly events roundup for 2020 — and this month, understandably, is a bit slow due to the holidays, but we have a roundup of the must-attend events for December.

From workshops and panels to summits and pitch parties, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. Note: This post will be updated to add more events.

December 1 — National Resilience Town Hall: Year in Review, Year Ahead

The Insurance Information Institute and ResilientH2O Partners, in partnership with the Resilience Accelerator, will hold the final session for 2020 in an ongoing series of thought-leadership among insurance, non-insurance, public sector, and technology senior executives. December's National Townhall will bring five unique perspectives together to discuss lessons-learned from 2020 and predictions for 2021's resilience and risk mitigation "agenda" across residential, commercial, industrial, government operations, infrastructure, facilities, and communities.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, at 10 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 1 — Angel Investing 101

Learn about how to make effective angel investment decisions and find out more about the newly launched Chicago Booth Angels Network of Texas. The event's keynote speaker is Ashok Rao, serial entrepreneur and board member of Houston-based GOOSE Capital.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, from 5 to 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 1 — The Ion's Industry Day

The goal of the inaugural Industry Day is to introduce and connect minority and women owned businesses (MWBE) with The Ion's Transwestern team. The hour long event is designed to facilitate networking and connect interested businesses with Transwestern, who will run operations for The Ion and catalyze local economic growth. Following the event, interested businesses can set up a walk through of The Ion in mid-December to finalize their bid.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, from 6 to 7 pm. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 2 — NASA and Your Small Business: Understanding the NASA Procurement Process

Join The Ion to learn about NASA's commitment to providing access for all categories of small businesses to participate in the procurement process.

The event is on Wednesday, December 2, at noon. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 3 — Capital Factory's Venture Summit

Capital Factory is calling all investors, accelerator leaders, limited partners, and more to its annual venture summit, which is taking place virtually this year.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 9:45 to 2 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 3 — Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation

JLABS @ TMC and Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium are teaming up for the sixth Annual Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation. The evening of innovation will host top experts from Houston and across the country will discuss their views on the latest in pediatric medical device innovation and updates on bringing a pediatric medical device to market.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 3:40 to 5 pm. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 3 — An Evening With Women in Corporate Innovation

Join General Assembly Houston to hear from inspiring female leaders in corporate innovation who have blazed the path to stand up and stand out. From learnings to failings and their secrets of success, this event is an opportunity to learn from the best — serious wisdom, from seriously cool women, all designed to supercharge you and your organization's success.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 5 to 6:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 8 — The Cannon Q4 Pitch Party: Presented by Dell Technologies

Join The Cannon and Dell Technologies in hearing from new companies working in Digital Transformation Tech.

The event is on Tuesday, December 8, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed via Zoom. Click here to register.

December 8 — How to Start a Startup with Heath Butler of Mercury Fund

The Ion is hosting a startup 101 workshop with Heath Butler from Mercury Fund. You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable — if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

    The event is on Tuesday, December 8, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed via Zoom. Click here to register.

    December 10 — Greentown Lab's Energy Bar: Wrapping Up an Unprecedented Year

    Join Greentown Labs virtually for the final edition of the EnergyBar networking event for 2020. Greentown Labs is ready to put a wrap on 2020, an unprecedent year for us all. Between the opening of the new community in Houston and a renewed national policy focus on climate action, the organization is looking ahead to 2021. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, and engage in a community that is focused on climate action at work.

    The event is on Thursday, December 10, from 3:30 to 6:30 pm. It's free and can be access through Remo. Click here to register.

    December 15 — The State of Space

    The Greater Houston Partnership is hosting its first State of Space event featuring NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as the keynote speaker. Since his appointment as Administrator in April of 2018, Bridenstine has led NASA in advancing American aeronautic, science, and space exploration objectives.

    The event is on Tuesday, December 15, at noon. It's $35 for GHP members and $60 for nonmembers. Click here to register.

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