Launched from South Texas, SpaceX's Starship survived for around 50 minutes before losing contact and landing in the Indian Ocean. Photo via SpaceX/Twitter

SpaceX came close to completing an hourlong test flight of its mega rocket on its third try Thursday, but the spacecraft was lost as it descended back to Earth.

The company said it lost contact with Starship as it neared its goal, a splashdown in the Indian Ocean. The first-stage booster also ended up in pieces, breaking apart much earlier in the flight over the Gulf of Mexico after launching from the southern tip of Texas near the Mexican border.

“The ship has been lost. So no splashdown today,” said SpaceX’s Dan Huot. “But again, it’s incredible to see how much further we got this time around.”

Two test flights last year both ended in explosions minutes after liftoff. By surviving for close to 50 minutes this time, Thursday's effort was considered a win by not only SpaceX's Elon Musk, but NASA as well as Starship soared higher and farther than ever before. The space agency is counting on Starship to land its astronauts on the moon in another few years.

The nearly 400-foot (121-meter) Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, headed out over the Gulf of Mexico after liftoff Thursday morning, flying east. Spectators crowded the nearby beaches in South Padre Island and Mexico.

A few minutes later, the booster separated seamlessly from the spaceship, but broke apart 1,500 feet (462 meters) above the gulf, instead of plummeting into the water intact. By then, the spacecraft was well to the east and continuing upward, with no people or satellites on board.

Starship reached an altitude of about 145 miles (233 kilometers) as it coasted across the Atlantic and South Africa, before approaching the Indian Ocean. But 49 minutes into the flight — with just 15 minutes remaining — all contact was lost and the spacecraft presumably broke apart.

At that point, it was 40 miles (65 kilometers) high and traveling around 16,000 mph (25,700 kph).

SpaceX's Elon Musk had just congratulated his team a little earlier. “SpaceX has come a long way,” he said via X, formerly called Twitter. The rocket company was founded exactly 22 years ago Thursday.

NASA watched with keen interest: The space agency needs Starship to succeed in order to land astronauts on the moon in the next two or so years. This new crop of moonwalkers — the first since last century’s Apollo program — will descend to the lunar surface in a Starship after transferring from NASA's Orion capsule in lunar orbit.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson quickly congratulated SpaceX on what he called a successful test flight as part of the space agency's Artemis moon-landing program.

The stainless steel, bullet-shaped spacecraft launched atop a first-stage booster known as the Super Heavy. Both the booster and the spacecraft are designed to be reusable, although they were never meant to be salvaged Thursday.

On Starship’s inaugural launch last April, several of the booster’s 33 methane-fueled engines failed and the booster did not separate from the spacecraft, causing the entire vehicle to explode and crash into the gulf four minutes after liftoff.

SpaceX managed to double the length of the flight during November’s trial run. While all 33 engines fired and the booster peeled away as planned, the flight ended in a pair of explosions, first the booster and then the spacecraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration reviewed all the corrections made to Starship, before signing off on Thursday’s launch. The FAA said after the flight that it would again investigate what happened. As during the second flight, all 33 booster engines performed well during ascent, according to SpaceX.

Initially, SpaceX plans to use the mammoth rockets to launch the company’s Starlink internet satellites, as well as other spacecraft. Test pilots would follow to orbit, before the company flies wealthy clients around the moon and back. Musk considers the moon a stepping stone to Mars, his ultimate quest.

NASA is insisting that an empty Starship land successfully on the moon, before future moonwalkers climb aboard. The space agency is targeting the end of 2026 for the first moon landing crew under the Artemis program, named after the mythological twin sister of Apollo.

Harish Krishnamoorthy is one of four fellows recognized by the program — and the first from UH to receive the honor. Photo via UH.edu

Houston researcher tapped for prestigious fellowship for offshore safety innovation

big win

A University of Houston professor has been selected by a national organization to “contribute to the understanding, management and reduction of systemic risk in offshore energy activities.”

The Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced that Harish Krishnamoorthy, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is one of four selected early-career research fellows in the Offshore Energy Safety track. Krishnamoorthy is the first researcher from UH selected for the recognition.

“I am happy and honored to be the first one, but hopefully there will be a lot more in the coming years,” Krishnamoorthy says in a UH news release.

The award, which isn't granted based on a specific project, includes a $76,000 grant, mentor support, and access to a network of current and past cohorts.

Created in 2013, the program is an independent, science-based program founded as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Its goal is "to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice and capacity, generating long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation," the release reads.

“These exceptional individuals are working hard to pursue new research, technical capabilities, and approaches that address some of the greatest challenges facing the Gulf and Alaska regions today,” says Karena Mary Mothershed, senior program manager for the Gulf Research Program’s Board on Gulf Education and Engagement. “We are incredibly excited to announce these new Early-Career Research Fellows, and to continue supporting them as they make lasting impacts.”

Krishnamoorthy, who also serves as associate director of the Power Electronics, Microgrids and Subsea Electric Systems Center at UH, has expertise is in power electronics, power converters, and offshore technologies. His research interests include high-density power conversion for grid interface of energy systems, machine learning-based methods for improvement in quality and reliability of power electronics, advanced electronics and control for mission-critical applications.

According to Krishnamoorthy, there are around 1,500 offshore rigs — with a large amount located North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. There's a need to improve existing systems, according to Krishnamoorthy, and this process of evolving the grid comes with safety risks and challenges.

“When there are so many electronics involved, safety and reliability are going to be very critical,” Krishnamoorthy says in he release. “I have been looking at safety aspects a lot in my research as well as how to connect subsea oil and gas systems with offshore renewable systems.”

In 2022, Krishnamoorthy was recognized as an OTC Emerging Leader at the Offshore Technology Conference for his contributions to offshore safety and workforce development in offshore, as well as reducing the carbon emissions.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.