Ax-1 is headed back to Earth after 12 days of research on the ISS. Photo courtesy of SpaceX

Editor's note: Undocking was delayed again on April 19, and a new timeline has not been announced. The original story is below.

After spending 12 days in space, a historic commercial space mission will splash back down on Earth this week.

Houston-based Axiom Space’s first mission Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1), which took off April 8 and connected to the International Space Station, has announced its plans for undocking and splashdown.

After some initial bad weather postponed the process, the four-member private astronaut crew now is aiming to undock at about 9 pm tonight, April 19, and then land off the coast of Florida at around 2:24 pm tomorrow, April 20. Just like launch, the coverage of both events will be available at Axiom's website.

The mission on SpaceX’s spacecraft sent four multinational private astronauts — Commander Michael López-Alegría, Pilot Larry Connor, Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe, and Mission Specialist Mark Pathy — to the ISS to conduct research and familiarize Axiom with launch, docking, and more.

Axiom Space, which reached $1 billion valuation and joined the Houston unicorn club last year after a $130 million investment round, is working on the first commercial space station to replace the ISS. The first launch of that mission is expected in late 2024. In the meantime, Axiom has a series of commercial launches to the existing station currently in orbit in order to prepare for development and orchestration of Axiom Station.

The Ax-1 mission, which has provided daily updates, has conducted over 20 research projects and even hit a few milestones, including:

  • The first-ever music duet performance in space — Commander López-Alegría and Neo-Classical Piano Prodigy BLKBOK made music and space history with their piano and keyboard duet
  • The Aging and Heart Health investigation, an experiment from the Mayo Clinic — a study that analyzes human cells for genetic markers of cellular aging and explores cardiac-like cells' adaptation to microgravity
  • Observation of Transient Luminous Events — Specialist Stibbe completed a space observation experiment and photographed a lightning storm over Darwin, Australia, to enhance understanding of the electrical processes in the atmosphere and to determine whether there’s a connection with climate change
  • Testing of the Holoportation system — Mission Specialist Pathy set up two-way AI technology that will allow the ability of future crew members to explore deep space with the ability to virtually bring friends, family, and physicians close with them so that they can get an on-Earth experience
  • Several outreach calls to Earth to STEM students from around the world — this included a call to children at Space Center Houston

Axiom shares more details on its mission research projects — which span technologies such as future space habitats, cancer research, and devices to purify air on space stations — online.

“As the first step on a path to building a diverse, thriving economy in low-Earth orbit, Axiom has partnered with leaders in academia and industry to bring new users and new investigations in research to the space station,” says Christian Maender, director of In-space Manufacturing and Research for Axiom Space, in a news release. “The collection of biological and technological tests during the Ax-1 mission represent a breadth of research that will inform everything from human health considerations to novel infrastructure and design for our future homes away from Earth, beginning with Axiom Station.”

The four-person crew spent 12 days on the ISS. Photo courtesy of NASA

Four commercial astronauts are headed to the ISS this week, thanks to a Houston tech company. Photo courtesy Axiom Space

Houston company prepares for takeoff of first commercial space launch

houston, we (almost) have liftoff

A Houston-based space tech company has been preparing for liftoff, and all signs point to moving forward with the planned launch tomorrow, April 8.

Axiom Space’s first mission — Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1) headed to the International Space Station on SpaceX machinery — is ready for takeoff. SpaceX, Axiom, and NASA are targeting a launch time of 10:17 a.m. Docking is expected to occur Saturday, April 9, at around 6:30 a.m. Axiom will be airing a lifestream of the launch on its website.

Axiom Space, which reached $1 billion valuation and joined the Houston unicorn club last year after a $130 million investment round, is working on the first commercial space station to replace the ISS. The first launch of that mission is expected in late 2024. In the meantime, Axiom has a series of commercial launches to the existing station currently in orbit in order to prepare for development and orchestration of Axiom Station.

"This really represents the first step where a bunch of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low earth orbit that aren't members of the government are able to take this opportunity," says Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, at a recent press conference. "It's really a precursor mission to a fully commercial space station that we're developing."

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft arrived last week in the hangar at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and, according to a news release from Axiom, the spacecraft has since been mated with the Falcon 9 rocket.

On the 10-day mission, the Ax-1 crew will spend eight days on the ISS conducting research and testing technology and operations. The mission's members include:

  • Commander Michael López-Alegría of Spain and the United States
  • Pilot Larry Connor of the United States
  • Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe of Israel
  • Mission Specialist Mark Pathy of Canada

"This mission is important because not only are we're also developing the techniques we will be using communication from mission control to space, but we're also developing all the procedures and processes that make space travel possible," says Peggy Whitson, director of Human Space Flight at Axiom Space, at the news conference.


Part of Axiom's long-term plans include an Earth observatory of its commercial space station. Photo via axiomspace.com

KBR signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center to provide private astronaut training in NASA facilities. Photo via NASA.gov

Houston tech company gets green light from NASA to train commercial astronauts

space tech

For 60 years, Houston-based KBR has supported NASA's astronauts. Now, though a recently signed Space Act Agreement, KBR will also be providing its human spaceflight operation services to commercial companies.

"KBR has pioneered space travel for more than half a century. We will leverage our domain expertise to assist private astronauts with their human spaceflight activities," says Stuart Bradie, KBR President and CEO, in a news release.

The arrangement will include KBR training private astronauts on NASA property — it's the only agreement of its kind. KBR will train for space tasks like operating onboard of the International Space Station, routine operational tasks, health and performance checks, responding to emergencies, and more.

"This historic agreement is a testament to KBR's long standing partnership with NASA. We will continue to work together to propel NASA's mission to fuel a low-Earth orbit economy and advance the future of commercial space," Bradie continues in the release.

Earlier this week, Axiom Space, a Houston-based space tech startup, announced it was selected to design a commercial space flight habitat to be attached to the ISS. KBR is among Axiom's professional partners on the project.

Image---Axiom-modules-connected-to-ISS KBR is one of Axiom Space's partners on its new NASA-sanctioned ISS project. Photo via AxiomSpace.com

The Axiom project includes plans to replace the ISS with a commercially operated space station. The targeted launch date for the commercial destination module is set for late 2024.

Both the Axiom and KBR agreements with NASA are in line with a shift toward commercialization within the space industry. Last June, NASA released its plan to introduce marketing and commercial opportunities to the ISS — with financial expense being a main factory.

"The agency's ultimate goal in low-Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which NASA is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at lower cost," reads the release online.

In an interview with InnovationMap last July, NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez explains that opening up the space industry to commercial opportunities allows for NASA to focus on research. The government agency doesn't need to worry about a return on investment, like commercial entities have to.

"With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another," Gonzalez says. "We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from."

A Houston space startup has been selected by NASA to design the first commercial habitat to attach to — and eventually replace — the International Space Station. Photo via axiomspace.com

NASA taps Houston startup to create commercial habitat to attach to the International Space Station

out of this world

A Houston-based space startup has been named the winner of a NASA competition — and the prize is getting to create the first commercial habitat in space.

Axiom Space has won NASA's NextSTEP-2 Appendix I solicitation, a call for a commercial habitat to be attached to the International Space Station's Harmony module, or Node 2. Axiom is working to create a commercial space station that would eventually serve as a replacement for ISS.

"We appreciate the bold decision on the part of NASA to open up a commercial future in low Earth orbit," Co-founder Michael Suffredini says in a news release. "This selection is a recognition of the uniquely qualified nature of the Axiom team and our commercial plan to create and support a thriving, sustainable, and American-led LEO ecosystem."

Axiom was founded by Suffredini, former NASA ISS program manager, and space entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian in 2016. The company has plans to launch a node module, research facility, manufacturing operations, crew habitat, and large-windowed Earth observatory all to be attached to the ISS. The targeted launch date is set for late 2024.

Part of Axiom's long-term plans include an Earth observatory. Photo via axiomspace.com

"Axiom exists to provide the infrastructure in space for a variety of users to conduct research, discover new technologies, test systems for exploration of the Moon and Mars, manufacture superior products for use in orbit and on the ground, and ultimately improve life back on Earth," continues Suffredini.

"As we build on the legacy and foundation established by the ISS Program, we look forward to working with NASA and the ecosystem of current and future international partners on this seminal effort."

Ghaffarian has decades of space expertise and founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, which went on to be a NASA engineering services provider before being acquired by KBR in 2018. Now, KBR — along with Boeing, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines, and Maxar Technologies — serves as a partner to Axiom.

"A commercial platform in Earth orbit is an opportunity to mark a shift in our society similar to that which astronauts undergo when they see the planet from above," Ghaffarian, who serves as Axiom's executive chairman, says in the release.

"Our goal is to advance the state of humanity and human knowledge. I am glad to see the Axiom team, with its advanced human spaceflight, engineering, and operations expertise, recognized for its potential to do just that and build off of ISS."

The Axiom Segment will be attached to the ISS until the station is phased out. Then, Axiom will launch a power source into space to serve Axiom's operations before detaching from the decommissioned ISS all together. Eventually, the Axiom Segment will be a free-flying commercial space station.

"There is a fantastically steep learning curve to human spaceflight," Suffredini says in the release. "The collective experience at Axiom is quite far along it. Because we know firsthand what works and what doesn't in [low Earth orbit], we are innovating in terms of design, engineering, and process while maintaining safety and dramatically lowering costs."

Lamborghini has partnered with Houston Methodist Research Institute to study the effects of space on carbon fiber. Photo courtesy of Automobili Lamborghini

Luxury sports car manufacturer partners with Houston researcher to study carbon fiber in space

Vroom

Apartnership between Automobili Lamborghini and the Houston Methodist Research Institute will send carbon fiber composite materials into space for experimentation then return them to Earth for study.

No earlier than November 2, a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying the material will be launched from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Its destination is the International Space Station.

The launch is part of a testing campaign sponsored by the ISS U.S. National Laboratory and overseen by the Houston Methodist Research Institute. Its aim is to analyze the response of five different composite materials produced by Lamborghini to the extreme stresses induced by the space environment. The results could have numerous real world impacts, including applications in future automobiles, prosthetic implants, and subcutaneous devices.

The five samples of composite materials include a 3D-printed continuous-fiber composite, which Lamborghini says makes it possible to combine the extreme flexibility of "additive manufacturing" with high-level mechanical performance, a strength equal to that of a good quality aluminum for structural uses. This particular material is very important in the biomedical field.

The materials will be aboard the ISS for six months, during which time they will be subjected to extreme thermal excursion cycles ranging from -40 degrees to 200 degrees centigrade. They will also experience high levels of ultraviolet radiation, gamma rays, and the flow of atomic oxygen caused by ionization.

Post-mission, the materials will be returned to Earth and undergo joint testing by Automobili Lamborghini and the Houston Methodist Research Institute in an effort to qualify degradation in terms of chemical, physical, and mechanical properties.

Lamborghini currently uses composite materials throughout its lineup, with carbon fiber playing an instrumental role in the company's entire product range. The company is providing its expertise and materials free of charge for the study.

Lamborghini hopes to use the results of the study to impact product development here on Earth. Photo courtesy of Automobili Lamborghini

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This article originally ran on AutomotiveMap.

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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.