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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

 
 

Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more in the month of October. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's busy business event season is in full swing, and there are ton of local innovation and entrepreneurship-focused programming across the city. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for October when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

October 4 — Softeq Venture Studio Happy Hour

The Softeq Venture Studio is excited for you to meet the newest startups accepted into its 2H 2022 Cohort. Meet the teams and learn more about how they secured $125K in funding.

You'll have the chance to meet the startup founders, learn about the problems being solved, and learn more about how the Softeq Venture Studio de-risks growing startups.

The event is Tuesday, October 4, at 5 pm, at Yardhouse (City Centre). Click here to register.

October 5 — State of the Airports

Houston Airports is one of North America's largest and busiest multi-airport systems in the world and plays an important role in the greater Houston region's position as a great global city.

State of the Airports features Houston Airports Director, Mario Diaz, who will share the latest information and growth plans for Houston's three airports. Diaz will also address the important role the Houston Airports plays in bolstering Houston's position as an international air gateway.

The event is Wednesday, October 5, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at the Marriott Marquis. Click here to register.

October 11 — State of Space

Earlier this month, Space City celebrated the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation delivered at Rice Stadium, "We choose to go to the moon." Many decades ago, these words showed the world that Houston holds a place as the epicenter for the world's biggest space endeavors and while space exploration has changed tremendously since those famous words, Houston's reputation in aviation and aerospace only grows stronger.

Join the Greater Houston Partnership for State of Space on Tuesday, October 11, to hear from some of the sharpest minds in aerospace and aviation technology who continue to chart a vibrant future for Houston centered around NASA's Johnson Space Center and one of the world’s only truly urban commercial spaceports.

Speakers include:

  • Featured speaker and panelist: Vanessa Wyche, Director, NASA’s Johnson Space Center
  • Stephen Altemus, President & CEO, Intuitive Machines
  • Peggy Guirges, General Manager of Space Systems, Collins Aerospace
  • Panel Moderator: Arturo Machuca, Director, Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport

The event is Tuesday, October 11, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at Impact Hub Houston (1801 Main street 10th Floor). Click here to register.

October 12 —  Making an Impact in the Houston Tech Ecosystem

You may have heard that Jay Steinfeld was the founder and CEO of Global Custom Commerce, which operates the world’s top online window coverings retailer Blinds.com. Boot-strapped in 1996 for just $3,000 from his Bellaire garage, Global Custom Commerce was acquired by The Home Depot in 2014. Jay remained its CEO and later joined The Home Depot Online Leadership Team. After stepping away from these roles in early 2020, he has increased his involvement on numerous private company boards and serves as a director of the public company Masonite (NYSE: DOOR). He also teaches entrepreneurship at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and supports numerous charities. Jay is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Houston Technology Center. Active as an industry speaker on corporate culture, core values, how to scale a start-up, and disruption, he has more than 100 published articles.

But did you know that many of Jay’s former employees have started businesses of their own, formed angel investment funds, developed and led some of Houston’s best technology teams, and grown into pillars of the HouTech community?

Come hear what’s sure to be an intriguing panel discussion with Jay and several ex-Blinds.com’ers as they discuss company culture, core values, lessons learned, and thoughts on the HouTech ecosystem and take questions from the audience.

The event is Wednesday, October 12, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 13 — October Transitions on Tap

Transition On Tap is Greentown Labs' monthly networking event devoted to fostering conversations and connections among the climate and energy transition ecosystem in Houston and beyond. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, discuss solutions, and engage with our growing community. If you’re looking for a job in climatetech or energy, trying to expand your network, or perhaps thinking about starting your own energy-related company, this is the event for you.

The event is Thursday, October 13, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

October 14 — Tech, Tools and Tips: Digital Training Day at Impact Hub Houston

Struggling with a process in your business? There's probably a tech tool for that. Impact Hub Houston invites YOU to attend an extended edition of its Tech, Tools, and Tips Series hosted in partnership with Frost Bank.

The goal for this session is to provide small business owners with an overview of various digital tools that can help your day to day operations. By attending this event, you will learn about various digital tools and also have an opportunity to network with other small business owners.

The event is Friday, October 14, 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, at the Omni Riverway. Click here to register.

October 14-16 — Incubate Galveston + the Ion Hackathon 2022

A hackathon is a social design sprint that brings together the community to work in teams creating innovative solutions. Basically, it’s a party, and a 48-hour race between teams competing to develop solutions to problem-sets for cash prizes. Participants will work in small teams that have a collection of experts, entrepreneurs, students, and community members to tackle the below identified challenges:

  • Increase food access in urban core neighborhoods
  • Create opportunities for green initiatives, including environmental education, coastal resilience, and conservation
  • Propose home refurbishment programs and housing
  • Develop capacity for education and workforce skills development
  • Solve the plastic pollution issue in Galveston: Plastic trash in the water supply, on the beaches, and in the waterways of Galveston and surround areas affects the community in many ways (e.g., beaches look dirty, the plastic has chemicals harmful to health, and microplastics get into the environment and remain there for long periods of time. How can we solve this problem, removing and reducing waste and its downstream impacts, and make our community safer and cleaner? The plastic pollution problem can be address in the way of innovative preventive steps, innovation treatments, and public education, etc.
  • Offer creative solutions to other challenges

The event is Friday, October 14, to Sunday, October 16, at the Marmo Plaza. Click here to register.

October 19 — How to Build an App without Code, Part 1: Info Session (In-Person & Online)

Join Heather Wilson, a UX Researcher, Service Designer and Google Design Sprint Facilitator, as she teaches you how to build an app without code!

Benefits of building an app without code:

  • building a custom app could take months to a year to develop
  • coding could present problems when your mobile strategy is pivoting
  • allows for customization and the ability to make changes as needed
  • high costs can be associated with building am app
The event is Wednesday, October 19, at 6 pm, online. Click here to register.

October 20 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

Rising electricity prices, increasing concerns about grid reliability, and achieving carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by 2035 have refocused attention on the role of nuclear in the energy transition. This comes after a decade of low investments, accumulating nuclear waste, an aging fleet of reactors, public opposition, and regulatory mandates that stalled nuclear’s growth and led to declines in production. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has maintained its safety record, made remarkable progress in fusion and advanced nuclear reactors, and improved operating safety and efficiency.

The first topic of the 2022-2023 Energy Symposium Series, The Future of Nuclear in the Energy Transition, will address if and how headways in advanced nuclear reactors, fusion, and waste management can overcome the challenges of economic feasibility, efficient and safe waste disposal, and build public and regulatory support for the increased deployment of nuclear energy in the U.S. We are excited to bring our panel discussion of Critical Issues in Energy back on campus this year.

The event is Thursday, October 20, at 6 pm, at Hilton University of Houston - Conrad N. Hilton Ballroom . Click here to register.

October 26-27 — Fuze

Fuze is bringing together the builders and innovators in energy tech. Shutting down 5 blocks in downtown Houston for two days and covering three content tracks, the event is focused on discovering breakthroughs in energy technology.

The event is Wednesday, October 26, to Thursday, October 27, at 8th Wonder Brewery. Click here to register.

October 27 — Aerospace Investment & Engagement

Join the Houston Angel Network as they discuss the current and future state of aerospace innovation and investment, followed by pitches.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 8 am to 1 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 27 — Space-Related Technology Development and the Houston Innovation Community

In these presentations, Mr. Montgomery Goforth and other aerospace subject matter experts will discuss the technology development challenges faced by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the surrounding Aerospace community in our ongoing efforts as the hub of human spaceflight. Presentations will focus on the ways in which these challenges, and the associated opportunities, can be leveraged by Houston’s innovation community.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 4 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

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