Despite the hit on the economy from the pandemic, Houston's prosperous economic development activity from 2020 has earned it a top spot on a new nationwide ranking. Photo via Getty Images

The Houston metro area shed 141,300 jobs last year — the worst one-year job loss ever recorded in the region — and the area's unemployment rate peaked at 14.3 percent last April. But, according to a new ranking, there's at least one bright spot in Houston's economy.

Site Selection magazine's latest report shines a bright light on last year's economic development activity in the Houston area and on the future of the region's economy. The area ranks No. 3 among major U.S. metro areas for the number of economic development projects secured last year (213). Houston shares the top 10 with two other Texas metro areas: Dallas-Fort Worth (ranked second with 262 projects) and Austin (tied for No. 6 with 84 projects). Chicago claimed the top spot, landing 327 economic development projects last year.

Site Selection lists several Houston-area projects among the top projects that Texas gained last year, including:

Measured another way, Houston ranked sixth for the number of economic development projects per capita last year (32.8) among major metro areas. Austin grabbed the No. 2 spot (43.2 projects per capita), and Dallas-Fort Worth appeared at No. 3 (37.7 projects per capita).

In remarks January 26 at the 2021 annual meeting of the Greater Houston Partnership, board Chairwoman Amy Chronis cited the 1,000-job Axiom Space project as one of last year's economic highlights for the region.

"This is a game-changing project for Houston as we position our region as one of the country's leading tech hubs," Chronis said. "It is the type of catalytic project that will drive meaningful growth of the commercial aerospace sector in Houston."

Chronis noted that Houston already is home to nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals, along with more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, "but the potential is so much greater."

"The space race is shifting to a commercially funded and operated industry, and it is critical that Houston maintains our leadership position," Chronis said.

NASA announced the Axiom Space project — the world's first commercial space station — in January 2020. Axiom Space aims to begin attaching its space modules to the International Space Station in 2024.

"NASA has once again recognized the hard work, talent, and experience of Houstonians as we expand the International Space Station and promote commercial opportunities in space," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said in a release touting the Axiom Space project.

Just last month, Axiom Space raised $130 million in a Series B round led by London-based investment firm C5 Capital. The funding will go toward bulking up the company's workforce and developing the space station.

Rob Meyerson, operating partner at C5 and a new member of Axiom Space's board of directors, called the company "a force in the space sector," and the startup's space station "the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space" and a launchpad for exploration of the moon and Mars.

"Axiom's work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit," Jim Bridenstine, a Rice University graduate who resigned earlier this year as NASA administrator, said in January 2020. "We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration."

News from NASA and space-focused startups trended in 2020. Photo via Pexels

Here are the top 5 Houston space innovation articles from 2020

2020 in review

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the space innovation news — whether that be new NASA hires or startup news — in the Space City, five stories trended among readers.

Houston-area space tech startup gets upgraded control center

A Houston-based company that's on a mission to the moon has a new control center. Photo via Jesus Motto/Savills

A space tech startup based in Clear Lake, just outside of Houston, has a new office that's going to help them take their technology out of this world.

Intuitive Machines, an engineering firm specializing in automation and aerospace, has upgraded its Houston-area control center. The company has moved into a 22,300-square-foot space on the sixth floor of a building located at 3700 Bay Area Road. The lease was executed last fall. London-based Savills had a Houston team to represent the tenant and oversee project management of the buildout.

"I was proud to work on the build-out for Intuitive Machines during such an exciting time in its history," says Savills associate director, David Finklea, in a news release. "As Intuitive is a leader in the aerospace space field, we created an environment that is far from the industry standard and complements its innovative endeavors. The design is bright and contemporary, with a relaxing and airy feel that imitates the illusion of being in space."

Currently, Intuitive Machines is working on NASA's Artemis Program and has been granted $77 million from the organization to launch a flight to the moon next year. In light of this project, Intuitive Machines needed a larger, optimized space to support its growing team. Click here to continue reading.

NASA names new leader to Houston-based human space flight arm

Kathy Lueders will lead the future of human space flight at NASA. Photo via nasa.gov

NASA has named its new head of human space flight — a department based out of Houston's Johnson Space Center.

Kathy Lueders, formerly the commercial crew program manager, has been named associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Friday, June 12.

"Kathy gives us the extraordinary experience and passion we need to continue to move forward with Artemis and our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024," says Bridenstine in a news release. "She has a deep interest in developing commercial markets in space, dating back to her initial work on the space shuttle program."

Lueders has been with NASA for over 12 years — spending time at both JSC and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Click here to continue reading.

Space City News: Houston passed over for military HQ, Rice forms new partnerships

Catch up on space news — from new partnerships at Rice University and the latest snub for the Space City. Photo via NASA.gov

It's been a busy few days for space news, and in Houston — the Space City — it's all relevant to the continued conversation of technology and innovation.

With so much going on — from Houston being passed over for the Space Command's headquarters and Rice receiving $1.4 million in federal funds for a new hub — here's what you may have missed in space news. Click here to continue reading.

Overheard: NASA administrator shares Houston's potential as a commercial space hub

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine joined the Greater Houston Partnership for the State of Space online event this week. Photo via NASA.gov

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its inaugural State of Space event featuring a keynote address by Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, that touched on the many ongoing projects at Houston's Johnson Space Center.

The online event, which also featured speeches from GHP President Bob Harvey and JSC Mark Geyer, took place Tuesday, December 15, for GHP members and nonmembers alike.

In his address, Bridenstine discussed the commercialization of space, how politics have affected the agency's history, and the exciting projects underway — including returning man to the moon. Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event. Click here to continue reading.

Tech startup lands in Houston to help space support services take off

Eric Ingram and Sergio Gallucci of SCOUT are focused on creating data-driven solutions to space technology management to save companies billions and prevent space debris. Photos courtesy of SCOUT

A Virginia-based space company startup focusing on developing small and inexpensive satellites is making an out-of-this-world entrance in the Houston commercial innovation space.

SCOUT has been selected as part of the 2020 MassChallange's Texas in Houston cohort, a zero-equity startup accelerator, in the commercial space track and is planning a demonstration mission with the Johnson Space Center in 2021.

The startup, founded in 2019 by Eric Ingram and joined shortly after by Sergio Gallucci. Both have years of experience in innovative research and development, leading teams across academia, government, and industry. Their data will help manufacturers and operators extend satellite lifetimes, avoid failing satellites, reducing up to a billion dollars in losses.

"If we want further operate in space and grow our space presence overall," Eric Ingram, CEO-and-founder tells InnovationMap. "We need to have a safe environment to expand that presence so any time you have unchecked failures and space debris is a problem. We want to help take some of the riskiness out of space operations by providing data that doesn't already exist."

SCOUT provides a wide array of new products based on data to produce small and inexpensive satellites to perform in-space inspections of large and expensive satellites. Their data and spaceflight autonomy software helps spacecraft detect, identify, and refine models for observed objects to gather information and enable autonomous operations. Click here to continue reading.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine joined the Greater Houston Partnership for the State of Space online event this week. Photo via NASA.gov

Overheard: NASA administrator shares Houston's potential as a commercial space hub

eavesdropping online

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its inaugural State of Space event featuring a keynote address by Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, that touched on the many ongoing projects at Houston's Johnson Space Center.

The online event, which also featured speeches from GHP President Bob Harvey and JSC Mark Geyer, took place Tuesday, December 15, for GHP members and nonmembers alike.

In his address, Bridenstine discussed the commercialization of space, how politics have affected the agency's history, and the exciting projects underway — including returning man to the moon. Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

"Houston is a city that chooses to take on humankind's boldest challenges head-on, and through that work we have built Houston as a technology-oriented city."

— Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. Harvey called out, specifically, the Johnson Space Center and its history as the mecca for human space flight, as well as the emerging Houston Spaceport, which hopes to combine innovation across industries, from space to energy and life sciences.

"In fiscal year '21, NASA will see the first two lunar landings of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services — this is an initiative led in Houston where American companies will serve science and technology payloads to the surface of the moon to prepare for human missions."

— Mark Geyer, director of JSC. Geyer mentions this initiative specifically, as well as 2020's collaboration with SpaceX to have the first American launch since 2011. Geyer also calls out NASA's new Commercial Crew Program. "All of these things position Houston to be a leader and a focal point for this new commercial space ecosystem, which is national and global in nature," Geyer says.

"We are very fortunate to have a center like Johnson in a city like Houston — a city that produces talent, that has an amazing workforce, a dedication to education and to the STEM fields."

— Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator. Bridenstine, a Rice University alumnus, adds that the JSC currently has more programs and projects under development at any point in history.

"Johnson is focused like a laser on Mission Control. ... The No. 1 project NASA has, which we celebrated last month, is 20 years of humans working and living in space continuously."

— Bridenstine says, noting some of the continued missions like Artemis, which will return humans to the surface of the moon, and Gateway, an outpost orbiting the moon to support continued human space exploration.

"Our goal is to put an American flag on Mars — the moon is the proving ground, and Mars is the destination."

— Bridenstine says regarding NASA's focus on returning to the moon.

"I am judging my time as NASA administrator based on whether or not — when my children are my age — we are still on the moon and on Mars."

— Bridenstine says. He notes that part of moving forward is looking back and learning about programs got canceled and why, and which ones were sustainable and why. In some cases, says Bridenstine, who served in U.S. Congress for five years, it was due to divisive politics.

"The Johnson Space Center is quite well positioned for attracting a lot of commercial industry and international partners."

— Bridenstine says when asked about Houston's potential for attracting space business. He mentions how crucial Houston-based Mission Control is and always has been, as well as the emerging focus on Gateway, which will be open for other countries to be supported by. "I think Houston is in great shape — between Mission Control and the Gateway."

NASA is now hiring. Photo via nasa.gov

NASA is hiring flight directors at Houston's Johnson Space Center

mission control

NASA has put out the virtual "now hiring" sign at Johnson Space Center. United States citizens have until Thursday, September 10, to apply for the position of flight director.

Now that American astronauts are once again launching off from American soil, NASA is amping up its flight director staff, according to a news release. Applications are open online for the flight director position, which oversees flights to the International Space Station from mission control at JSC.

"NASA flight directors need a unique mixture of confidence and humility, innovation and organization," says Holly Ridings, chief flight director at JSC, in the release. "The situations you have to deal with are occasionally very tough, and the stakes are always very high. But if you are able to handle that responsibility, there is nothing like knowing that you played a key role in the historic work that NASA does on a day-to-day basis."

Flight director candidates must be U.S. citizens and have a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics, per the release. Additionally, they also will need related experience — more details are available online.

The selected flight director hires will be announced later in the fall, and then will begin extensive training with NASA.

This summer, NASA and SpaceX's launch of astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley market the first American liftoff in nearly a decade.

Following the mission, NASA named its new human spaceflight director, Kathy Lueders. In that announcement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine alluded to the missions that are in the works for human spaceflight.

"We have our sights set on the Moon and even deeper into space, and Kathy is going to help lead us there," Bridenstine said.

Kathy Lueders will lead the future of human space flight at NASA. Photo via nasa.gov

NASA names new leader to Houston-based human space flight arm

at the helm

NASA has named its new head of human space flight — a department based out of Houston's Johnson Space Center.

Kathy Lueders, formerly the commercial crew program manager, has been named associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Friday, June 12.

"Kathy gives us the extraordinary experience and passion we need to continue to move forward with Artemis and our goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024," says Bridenstine in a news release. "She has a deep interest in developing commercial markets in space, dating back to her initial work on the space shuttle program."

Lueders has been with NASA for over 12 years — spending time at both JSC and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"From Commercial Cargo and now Commercial Crew, she has safely and successfully helped push to expand our nation's industrial base," continues Bridenstine. "Kathy's the right person to extend the space economy to the lunar vicinity and achieve the ambitious goals we've been given."

The appointment was effective immediately, and included two other personnel changes for NASA — Steve Stich was named commercial crew program manager, and Ken Bowersox returns to his role as HEO deputy associate administrator.

"I want to thank Ken and the entire HEO team for their steady support of Kathy in making Commercial Crew such a success," added Bridenstine. "I know they'll give her the same support as she moves out in her new role. This is such a critical time for the agency and for HEO."

The appointment comes at a time when NASA is focused on commercializing space exploration. Last month, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley took off toward the International Space Station in SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket — representing the first manned mission in a SpaceX vehicle and the first launch from United States soil in almost a decade.

"We still need to bring Doug and Bob home safely and we're not going to lose focus," continues Bridenstine. "We have our sights set on the Moon and even deeper into space, and Kathy is going to help lead us there."

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Comcast donates tech, funds to support diversity-focused nonprofit

gift of tech

A Houston organization focused on helping low-income communities by providing access to education, training, and employment has received a new donation.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. The gift is part of a new partnership with SERJobs that's aimed at educating and equipping adults with technical skills, including training on Microsoft Office and professional development.

“SERJobs is excited to celebrate 10 years of Comcast's Internet Essentials program,” says Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO, SERJobs, in a news release. “The Workforce Development Rally highlights the importance of digital literacy in our increasingly virtual world—especially as technology and the needs of our economy evolve. We are grateful to Comcast for their ongoing partnership and support of SERJobs’ and our members.”

For 10 years Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 10 million people to the Internet at home — most for the first time. This particular donation is a part of Project UP, Comcast’s comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity.

“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across Houston,” says Toni Beck, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Houston, in the release.

“Together, we have connected hundreds of thousands of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides," she continues. "Our work is not done, and we are excited to partner with SERJobs to ensure the next generation of leaders in Houston are equipped with the technical training they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. This summer, Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

Additionally, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston last December, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

President Joe Biden appoints Houston green space guru to lofty national post

new gig

Aprominent and nationally acclaimed Houston parks presence has just received a hefty national appointment. President Joe Biden has named Beth White, Houston Parks Board president and CEO, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the organization announced.

The NCPC, established by Congress in 1924, is the federal government’s central planning agency for the National Capital Region. The commission provides overall guidance related to federal land and buildings in the region. Functions include reviewing the design of federal and local projects, overseeing long-range planning for future development, and monitoring capital investment by federal agencies.

Fittingly, White was initially appointed to NCPC as the at-large presidential commissioner in January 2012, per a press release. She was reappointed for another six-year term in 2016. Most recently, White served as the commission’s vice-chair.

“I’m honored to chair the National Capital Planning Commission and work with my fellow commissioners to build and sustain a livable, resilient capital region and advance the Biden Administration’s critical priorities around sustainability, equity, and innovation,” White said in a statement.

Before joining Houston Parks Board in 2016, White served as the director of the Chicago Region Office of The Trust for Public Land, where she spearheaded development of The 606 public park and was instrumental in establishing Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge.

Renowned in the Windy City, she also was managing director of communications and policy for the Chicago Housing Authority; chief of staff for the Chicago Transit Authority’s Chicago Transit Board; and assistant commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. She was the founding executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for Urban Land Institute Houston.

The graduate of Northwestern and Loyola universities most recently received the Houston Business Journal’s 2021 Most Admired CEO award, per her bio.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.