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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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

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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

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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.