Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston has witnessed a universe of history-making moments. There's now another milestone to add to the list.

On June 30, Vanessa Wyche was named director of Johnson Space Center, becoming the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Wyche had been acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors.

"As the home to America's astronaut corps, International Space Station mission operations, the Orion and Gateway programs, and a host of future space developments, Johnson is a world leader in human space exploration and is playing a key role in the next giant leaps in American excellence in space," Wyche says. "I look forward to working with everyone as we push forward to the moon and inspire a new generation of explorers to reach for the stars."

Before being named acting director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche had been deputy director since August 2018. Wyche, a 31-year NASA veteran, also has served as assistant director of the center and director of the center's Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, worked in the executive office of the NASA administrator, served as a flight manager for several space shuttle missions, and has led other center-level technical organizations and programs. The South Carolina native holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Clemson University.

Wyche succeeds Mark Geyer as director of Johnson Space Center. Geyer stepped down in May to focus on his cancer treatment. He had led the center since 2018 as its 12th director. In a video released in May, Geyer said he had been coping with an unidentified form of cancer for about 12 months.

Geyer remains with NASA as a senior adviser to the agency's associate administrator.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson simultaneously announced Wyche's appointment and Janet Petro's appointment as director of Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Both Vanessa and Janet are exceptional leaders who will help propel NASA forward as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before," Nelson says. "It's an incredible time at NASA, and with Vanessa and Janet leading the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, NASA will embark on a new era of space exploration — starting with the Artemis I launch to the moon later this year."

Nelson, a former U.S. senator from Florida, became NASA administrator in May following his nomination by President Biden. During his congressional tenure, Nelson was one of NASA's staunchest advocates and even flew aboard the Columbia space shuttle. He succeeds acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Jurczyk ran the agency after the departure of Bridenstine in January, at the end of the Trump presidency.

In 2019, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar reported the nearly 1,700-acre Johnson Space Center generates an economic impact of $4.7 billion in Texas and supports more than 52,000 jobs.

"NASA's history is intertwined with Texas' history, grit, and can-do spirit, and NASA's future in Texas will be crucial in building tomorrow's Texas economy," Hegar said at the time.

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."

Mario Diaz, CEO of the Houston Airport System addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary this weekend. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: Aerospace and airport VIPs commemorate Space City Month at IAH

Out of this world

Houston, we have liftoff of a space-filled weekend. Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, and that calls for a celebration, as well as a commemoration.

Houston First, Space Center Houston, NASA, and United Airlines teamed up to host an international delegation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal C on July 17. Various space or Space City VIPs took the stage to discuss their memories of the lunar landing and the role Houston played in the monumental event.

“Our hope is to be an airport system that reflects Houston’s role as a leader on the global stage and to have our city standing as truly international business and cultural center. With both Bush and Hobby airports having earned four-star ratings, we are built to meet those expectations.”

— Mario Diaz, executive director at Houston Airport System. Bush Intercontinental Airport is also celebrating its 50th anniversary since opening in 1969.

“It is the innovative spirit of the people of this city that help give the world our new perspective. We are all neighbors, and we must all face the future as one. How wonderful that understanding is now with Houston having become the nation’s most diverse city in the country with one in four Houstonians being foreign born.”

— Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing a ranking released earlier this year.

“This week, we are celebrating this anniversary and time when we did so much more than we thought we could. … [the Apollo mission] was an inspiration to us then, and I think continues to be an inspiration to all of us even now.”

Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the United States for her 665 days in space.

“Houston is the Space City, because the Johnson Space Center is the home of human space flight. As you know, ‘Houston’ was the very first word spoken from the surface of the moon. And, it wasn’t a fluke. They knew who they needed to talk to, and it was Houston.”

— Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“In roughly three years, we will have astronauts back in the region of the moon — this time women and men. And soon after that, back onto the surface of the moon again in our mission called Artemis.”

— Geyer continues to say of NASA's lunar exploration plans.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Space Center Houston] inaugurated the completely restored mission control operations room from the Apollo era. We’ve done a restoration and taken it back to the 1960s, and it appears as if the flight controllers just got up to take a break.”

— William Harris, CEO of Space Center Houston. The organization is NASA's official tourism arm and houses 250,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space.

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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.