You've heard "it's not rocket science" throughout your life, but but turns out that aerospace exploration — even in 2021 — is still very hard. Photo via Pexels

If there is anything that goes hand in hand so perfectly, it's Houston and Space. Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and is home to revolutionary space research projects and spaceflight training for both crew members and flight controllers. While it's every kid's dream to become an astronaut, have you ever wondered why rocket science is actually so difficult?

Though the space race of the '70s has been over for some time, the new space race — the race to Mars and the commercialization of space tourism — has just started. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are spearheading the "Billionaire space race." But even with their billions being put into developing spaceports, NASA rocket partnerships, and planning future Mars missions, rocket science is just as difficult to implement as it was the first time around.

So why, even with billions of dollars at their disposal and many companies pushing for more funding, are scientists and engineers still struggling to make rocket travel an everyday thing? Here are some of the countless reasons why rockets science is insanely difficult, no matter how much money you throw at it.

Small talent pool

The Apollo astronauts were the best of the best — and the hundreds of thousands of engineers and rocket scientists behind the scenes were just as talented. But getting to the point in one's career where you have the right background experience and the right hands-on work and real-life experience to create a safe rocket is difficult. The talent pool that SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin are working with is extremely small and notoriously competitive. As these programs continue to build in credibility, it may be easier to find talent, but few engineers want to be tied to a failed launch.

The risk of failure

Usually, when you fail at something like a math test or a driver's exam, the ramifications aren't too big. But with space travel, a small problem can quickly turn into a deadly situation for those on board the rocket. Think back to the Challenger explosion in 1986. The success of previous missions (not to mention the administrative corner-cutting) led to a false sense of security when in reality they were still embarking on the insanely difficult feat of launching humans into space. The risk of failure is so great, many commercial manufacturers are cautious to put their weight behind an operation that could in all likelihood come crashing back down to Earth.

Rocket construction

Think back to when you were in school learning about Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's a simple idea, but complex in reality. That law of motion forms the basis for rocket science: the combustion of rocket fuel down into the earth is one action, so the opposite reaction causes the rocket to launch upward into space. But the engineering that's needed for a launch to take place is the hard part.

As mentioned in a 2012 NPR article, there are millions of pieces in every rocket, and "therefore millions of opportunities to make errors — to make errors in calculations, to make errors in construction." The devastating Challenger mission failure is often attributed to faulty O-rings — it's a simple piece of equipment and can often be overlooked.

Even after hundreds of successful launches over the years, rocket construction is just as complex, and the process of shooting humans into space cannot be distilled to a law of motion when there is so much more involved to make that process happen.

Public perception

Throughout the '70s, Americans were enthralled by the idea of the space race and becoming the first country to set foot on the moon. But the public's passion died down after that initial landing. Today, the public perception of current space projects is making doing the actual rocket science and engineering difficult.


Objections against NASA's waste of taxpayer money on "futile" missions and the idea that space travel will only be for the mega-wealthy make any conversation around actual scientific discovery second to politics. Not to even mention the newly minted Space Force. Engineers and scientists have to navigate a hoard of political, financial, and PR battles to even get to do the work of getting people back into space.

The bottom line

Rocket science is thought of as one of the most difficult fields for a reason. Building a piece of technology capable of going into space and even housing people inside is a relatively new feat when considering the span of time. As the billionaire space race continues to unfold, scientists and engineers behind the scenes are creating feats of engineering on a regular basis that will shape the future of space travel. But, if you want to just get a taste of space life, without all the schooling, then a trip to the Johnson Space Center is for you.

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Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

Here's what to attend at virtual SXSW this year. Photo via SXSW.com

7 can't-miss events at virtual SXSW featuring Houston speakers

south by the bayou

Many Houstonians were hoping to be able head out to Austin next week for SXSW 2021, but now they don't have to venture out from behind their computer screens.

SXSW has pivoted to virtual this year, but the online schedule still features all the thought leadership as previous years. If you're looking to hop into innovation and tech conversations featuring Houstonians, check out these events across space, health care, energy, and more.

Tuesday — Leading the Global Energy Transition

The Greater Houston Partnership is hosting a series of thought-leadership discussions focused on the global energy transition. Join Houston House for interviews with some of the brightest minds in energy who are leading the global energy transition through corporate innovation, energy technology, ESG, and the future of workforce.

Editor's note: InnovationMap was the facilitator for some of the interviews.

Catch the event Tuesday, March 16, from 10 am to 1 pm.

Tuesday — The Climate Crisis & American Cities

Cities are succumbing the ravages of a rapidly changing climate more and more often. Once in a lifetime flooding events are more frequent, wildfires are raging with greater intensity, droughts are being prolonged, and the rising seas levels are imperiling coastal communities. Aside from the ecological and economic impact of climate change, the effects of climate change are being disproportionately felt by low-income communities of color.

Hear from mayors of America's largest cities — including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner — on how they are approaching this crisis and what you can do to help fight climate change in your community.

Catch the event Tuesday, March 16, from 10:15 am to 11:10 am.

Tuesday — The Health Trust Gap and How to Fix It

While the term "Infodemic" has circulated widely during the pandemic, the spread of health related misinformation is not a new phenomenon rather one that has been exacerbated. Now more than ever before we are seeing a divide in behaviors and in humanity. So how do we begin to build trust in this breakdown of communication? What steps can and should individuals, governments, media and businesses play?

Moderator Dr. Natalia Peart of Houston-based Catalyst Innovation Group will explore these questions and more with her panel of experts.

Catch the event Tuesday, March 16, from 10:15 am to 11:10 am.

Wednesday — Building a Thriving and Diverse Innovation Ecosystem

The Greater Houston Partnership is hosting a series of thought-leadership discussions focused on the global energy transition. Join Houston House for interviews with leaders from across the region's startup ecosystem discuss how Houston has become a thriving hub for digital technology while fostering a culture of inclusive innovation.

Editor's note: InnovationMap was the facilitator for some of the interviews.

Catch the event Wednesday, March 17, from 10 am to 1 pm.

Wednesday: Digital Access: A New Social Determinant of Health

Children's hospitals and T-Mobile are partnering to discuss the growing digital divide and the emergence of a new social determinant of health; digital access. Technology and digital access can now play a significant role in a patient's ability to have equitable access to healthcare, education and many other areas of their life.

Jackie Ward, chief nursing officer at Texas Children's Hospital joins this discussion.

Catch the event Wednesday, March 17, from 3:30 to 3:55 pm.

Thursday — Who on Earth should Govern Space?

Who will make the rules once out of the Earth's orbit? Can any commercial space company attempt to colonize Mars? These are just the start-off questions for those with insatiable curiosity. Texas A&M University's president, the director of space flight policy at SpaceX and an expert on who owns artifacts discovered in space confer with an award-winning science journalist.

Catch the event Thursday, March 18, from 9 to 9:55 pm.

Friday — Pushing our Bodies and Minds Beyond the Limits

In 2020 people across the globe experienced extreme isolation and mental health challenges. A source of empathy and education was found beyond the globe, in the small group that have spent time in space. An astronaut and sports psychologist discuss similarities and challenges of keeping mental and physical health in top shape while in isolation.

Houston-based former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar will be in on the discussion.

Catch the event Friday, March 19, from from 3:30 to 3:55 pm or at the encore Saturday, March 20, at 10 to 10:55 am.

NASA has tapped Firefly Aerospace, headquartered in Texas, to land science equipment on the moon. Courtesy of Firefly Aerospace.

This Texas company is on a mission to the moon with $93 million NASA contract

SHOOT FOR THE MOON

A local aerospace company is over the moon about its latest endeavor: a NASA-funded project to deliver scientific payloads to the lunar surface.

NASA recently awarded rocket-maker Firefly Aerospace $93.3 million to deliver a suite of science and technology demonstrations and equipment to the moon in 2023. The award is part of a NASA initiative — and key to its moon-focused Artemis program — that enables the agency to tap commercial partners to quickly dispatch and land science and technology payloads on the moon.

As part of the deal, Firefly is responsible for what NASA calls "end-to-end delivery services," meaning the company will compile the NASA-sponsored and commercial payloads, weighing more than 200 pounds, launch them from Earth, land them on the moon using its Blue Ghost lander, which was designed and developed at Firefly's Cedar Park facility, and manage mission operations.

"Our team's collective experience resulted in a creative technical solution to meet the needs of all these payloads, with a strong emphasis on both lunar science return and customer service through each mission phase," says Will Coogan, Firefly's lunar lander chief engineer.

For Firefly, the mission supports the company's overall goal to become the leading space-transportation company in the U.S. The NASA award was publicized the same day Firefly announced a new board of directors and its plans to implement an internal restructuring of the company, namely designating specific business units dedicated to launchers and spacecraft, and expanding its government-relations team.

This is the first NASA award of its kind for Firefly, which is scheduled to deliver the goods to the moon's low-lying Crisium basin, enabling NASA to further investigate the lunar surface, all with the goal of preparing for future human missions to — and sustainable human presence on — the moon.

"The payloads we're sending as part of this delivery service span across multiple areas, from investigating the lunar soil and testing a sample capture technology, to giving us information about the moon's thermal properties and magnetic field," says Chris Culbert, manager of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Firefly's Blue Ghost will land in an area of the Crisium basin known as Mare Crisium, a 300-mile-wide valley where NASA hopes to gain more understanding about the loose rock and soil, as well as the interaction of solar wind and Earth's magnetic field.

The lunar investigations will come shortly before NASA's planned missions to the moon and beyond. As part of its Artemis program, NASA aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, with the agency noting its partnerships with commercial companies like Firefly will help NASA "establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade," then use that knowledge to "take the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Perseverance has landed on Mars. Illustration courtesy of NASA

NASA and Johnson Space Center celebrate unprecedented Mars Perseverance landing

Mars landing

While Houston is in the depths of a historic freeze, some spacey locals are celebrating a major cosmic milestone. NASA — and Johnson Space Center, locally — are toasting the landing of Perseverance, the amiable roving vehicle, on Mars.

The reliable rover, nicknamed "Percy," touched down on the rocky Red Planet at approximately 2:55 pm Houston time on Thursday, February 18, to cheers at JSC and at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which is spearheading the mission.

In a harrowing descent, described by NASA tech crews as "seven minutes of terror," the rover plunged through the thin Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph. A 70-foot parachute and powered descent slowed the rover to about 2 mph before a "sky crane maneuver," and soft landing at Mars' Jezero Crater.

Importantly, the intrepid Perseverance is carrying the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter – that will attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. Aside from undertaking crucial experiments and sample collections, the first order of business is ensuring that Perseverance is "healthy," said NASA Perseverance staffer, Jessica Samuels, on NASA TV.

"If there's one thing we know, it's that landing on Mars is never easy," said NASA associate administrator for Communications Marc Etkind, in a statement. "But as NASA's fifth Mars rover, Perseverance has an extraordinary engineering pedigree and mission team. We are excited to invite the entire world to share this exciting event with us!"

Proud, starry-eyed Houstonians can watch the developments live on NASA TV online.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based Axiom Space has raised more funds for its growing commercial space business. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston space tech company raises $130M series B

money moves

Just around a year ago, Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. closed a $100 million series A round. Now, the space tech company has announced even more financing as it grows and scales to support a NASA-commissioned project.

Axiom raised $130 million in its series B round led by C5 Capital with support from TQS Advisors, Declaration Partners, Moelis Dynasty Investments, Washington University in St. Louis, The Venture Collective, Aidenlair Capital, Hemisphere Ventures, and Starbridge Venture Capital.

"Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio and enhance our vision for a secure global future," says C5 operating partner Rob Meyerson, who will join the Axiom board of directors, in a news release. "The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond."

"Axiom Space was founded on the knowledge that commercial infrastructure and innovation in space would offer unique ways to improve life on Earth," says Axiom co-founder and executive chairman, Kam Ghaffarian, in the release. "Axiom's sole-selection by NASA to connect to ISS and ability to leverage its key revenue lines are evidence of the company's expertise and a business model that is set up to optimize across a variety of commercial on-orbit opportunities.

"This highly successful round is a pivotal moment for on-orbit commerce and its implications for our civilization's potential are far-reaching."

In January 2020, NASA selected Axiom to work on designing and building modules to be attached to the International Space Station. The projects could be ready as early as 2024. Axiom is working to create a commercial space station that would eventually serve as a replacement for ISS. This transformation is expected in late 2028.

In December, Axiom released new details of its 14-acre headquarters near the Houston Spaceport. The HQ is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

The recently raised funding will help support these ongoing Axiom projects.

"We are proud to partner with Axiom's exceptional management team, who built, led, and visited the International Space Station on behalf of NASA and its partners," Brian Stern, a partner at Declaration Partners, says. "The next-generation space station we are building today will be a key means of conducting space-based research, manufacturing, communication, and travel for decades to come."

Christine Galib and Courtney Cogdill of The Ion join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the four accelerator programs that are striving to advance Houston. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion's accelerators are working to bring out the best in Houston — from resiliency to diversity

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 71

When you look at the business accelerator programs offered at The Ion, a rising innovation hub in Midtown, you see Houston represented. From energy and space tech to resiliency and diversity, the four accelerators intentionally cover what Houston is all about.

Courtney Cogdill, program director of the Accelerator Hub, and Christine Galib, senior director, at The Ion joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what all they are focused on across the business accelerator programs at the hub. Editor's note: This podcast was recorded ahead of the winter storm that affected the state of Texas this week.

Now more than ever, innovators are dedicating their careers to resilient technologies that can enhance the city's future. And this effort comes naturally to Houstonians, Galib says on the podcast.

"There is an ethos here that is one of roll up your sleeves, collaborate, and get to work. Get the work done, and have fun while you're doing it," she says on the show. "We all come together in a time of challenge, and we really show each other that we're not just individually resilient, we are collectively resilient."

Neither Galib nor Cogdill are from Houston — but each have observed the same resiliency among the city and its people.

"Houston really just picks itself back up by the bootstraps and just runs," Cogdill says.

But The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, launched in 2019, was only just the beginning for The Ion's Accelerator Hub. Last year, three more accelerator programs were announced — the Aerospace Innovation Hub for Minority Business Enterprises at The Ion, Austin-based DivInc's Accelerator, and the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator. These were made possible through a series of grants — a $1.4 million one from NASA to launch the ASCI-Hub and a $1.5 million one from Economic Development Administration.

Galib and Cogdill discuss each of the programs, as well as what they are excited for when The Ion opens later this year. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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Overheard: Master P shares his entrepreneurial advice at Houston Tech Rodeo kickoff

eavesdropping in Houston

Percy Miller developed his music career as Master P, but it's far from his only entrepreneurial endeavor. At Houston Exponential's kick-off event for the 2021 Houston Tech Rodeo, Miller took the virtual stage with Zack O'Malley Greenburg, a journalist and author.

In the discussion, Miller shared his experience in his many fields of entrepreneurship, including music, fashion, consumer packaged goods, and more. He focused on trusting your own hard work, surrounding yourself with a good support system, and embracing failure — something he's done throughout his career.

"I don't look at it as a loss. I look at it as a lesson. Every 'L' is a lesson," he says. "Every time I had a business fail, I learned something from it and it opened up a door into a future."

To hit the highlights from the fireside chat with Master P, check out some overheard moments below. To stream the full broadcast, click here.

“A music career only lasts 3 to 5 years at the most. … I started diversifying my portfolio and I looked at the tech side and said, ’This is where you got to be at.’”

Miller says he was out in the Bay Area in the '90s and early '00s, and he saw first hand the tech scene developing in Silicon Valley. He even released an album in 2005 called Ghetto Bill, a reference to Bill Gates.

“I have failed a lot — don’t be afraid to fail. Get out and take that chance on yourself.”

Miller's music career mirrors, in some ways, the dynamic path of a startup. He received a $10,000 investment from his grandparents and used it to launch his career.

"I created an empire with $10,000," he says.

But It wasn't always easy, and Miller remembers the hustle, selling his music from the trunk of his car, and his many failures.

“You have to be committed to what you do — and you have to love it. It never was about money. When you’re passionate about something, you have a purpose. You’ll get there. If you do it for money, you’ll probably never be successful.”

Passion is a key ingredient in the recipe for success, Miller explains. It drives accomplishment and, "if you get it that easy, you'll probably lose it even quicker," he continues.

“I have an entrepreneurial spirit — I have to learn everything about what I’m doing.”

When it came to developing his music career, Miller says he wore every different hat in the process because he knew he would work the hardest.

"For me, if I can be the talent and the person who runs the company, I feel like there's no limit," Miller says. "I knew I could depend on myself."

“Show me your friends, and I can show you your future.”

Miller started his own record label, No Limit Records, and it was here he cultivated an environment of artists who didn't just want to perform, get pampered, and hang out at the club.

"People at No Limit — it was like a university," he says. "Everybody was coming to study to not only learn how to be an artist but also learn entrepreneurship and financial literacy."

“Most people wanted that advanced check, that money upfront. But my thing was I wanted the control in the end. When you come from a poor culture, you look at things differently. At least I did.”

Miller says he learned this at a young age, that if you hold the power, you make the decisions. "I want better for my kids and the only way I am going to do that is by creating longevity where I own the largest percent of the company," he says.

“It’s all about economic empowerment — we’re stronger together.”

Miller says he's focused on product and taking over the grocery stores, as well as driving economic empowerment for other BIPOC-founded companies and putting money back into the community.

"I want to focus on other minority-owned companies and brands get their products on the shelves,' he says.

Experts: Houston can win in the energy transition — here's how

Guest column

President Joe Biden recently announced his 2030 goal for the United States to achieve a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from its 2005 levels. This announcement comes on the heels of the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion infrastructure and climate-response program which offers a host of energy- and climate change-related initiatives, including a plan to speed up the conversion of the country to carbon-free electricity generation by 2035.

To reach these goals, companies of all industries are looking to implement clean energy investments and practices and do so quickly. Perhaps more than any major city in America, Houston faces fundamental questions about its economy and its future in the global Energy Transition. Some 4,600 energy companies, including more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, serve as the foundation of the city's economy.

While many of these are working in the renewables space, the vast majority are rooted in fossil fuels. Many in Houston have long been anticipating this move towards renewables, but the new executive position on emissions has brought renewed pressure on Houston to take action and put investments behind securing its position as the Energy Capital of the World.

Houston's energy transition status

There has been an uptick in Energy Transition activity in Houston over the past several years. Currently, Houston boasts at least 100 solar energy-related companies and 30 wind energy-related companies. Environmental Entrepreneurs ranked Houston seventh among the top 50 U.S. metro areas for clean energy employment in the fourth quarter of 2019, with 1.9 percent of all clean energy jobs in the U.S. In 2019, Houston had 56,155 clean energy jobs, up nearly 4 percent from 2018, according to E2. However, by comparison, there are roughly 250,000 fossil fuel jobs in the area. (S&P Global)


Many traditional oil and gas companies have embraced this change, pivoting to more sustainable and resilient energy solutions. Companies working in tangentially related industries, like finance, infrastructure and services, are beginning to understand their role in the Energy Transition as well.

The challenge

While the Bayou City's proximity to the bay and natural oil supply may have set the scene for Houston's Energy Capital Status, the same geographic advantages do not exist in this new renewable space. As many have already begun to realize – Houston companies must make a concerted and timely effort to expend their focus to include renewables.

Greater Houston Partnership recently launched a new initiative aimed at accelerating Houston's activity around energy transition, while existing committees will continue efforts to bring energy tech and renewable energy companies to Houston. This initiative will bolster Houston's smart city efforts, explore the policy dimensions of carbon capture, use, and storage, and advocate for legislation that helps ensure the Texas Gulf Coast is positioned as a leader in that technology.

The Partnership estimates the city has seen $3.7 billion dollars of cleantech venture funding in recent years. Still, the infrastructure and services sector of the Energy Transition is vastly underinvested in, especially when compared to the tens of billions in the more traditional sector.

The opportunity

Houston, and the energy markets specifically, have always been great at raising capital and deploying it. The energy companies and capital needed to support them will continue to be in Houston as the energy markets transition to renewable sources in addition to fossil fuels.

The job opportunities in Houston and new energy are going to be significant. Texas is well suited to fit these needs as the technical skillset from fossil fuels to renewables is highly transferable. Given the technical expertise needed to manage energy—whether it's oil, gas or renewables—Houston and Texas will always have the universities here that feed the technical skills needed in energy.

Houston has always done a great job at attracting energy companies and related businesses to move their headquarters here or open and office in the area. Additionally, offering proper training opportunities for both oil and gas and renewable energy jobs has a proven track record of spurring growth and attracting talent to our area.

All of this, combined with a concerted effort from investors willing to double down on the sectors of solar, storage, electric vehicles and energy management sectors are critical. With swifter growth for jobs in the renewable space and incentivization of the next generation of energy companies, Houston can forge a clear path towards the "New Energy Capital of the World."

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Eric Danziger and Jordan Frugé are managing directors at Houston-based Riverbend Energy Group.

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 — sports tech, energy, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon

Lawson Gow is bullish on Houston becoming a sports tech hub. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Is Houston the next hub for sports tech innovation? Lawson Gow thinks so.

"Sports tech is a thing we can win at. There's no global hub for sports tech — so Houston can do that," Gow says. "We've always had that in our heads as a direction we want the city to head down, so it just makes it so opportunistic to create a space for that kind of innovation at work for the city."

The founder of Houston coworking company, The Cannon, announced last week plans for a sports tech hub in partnership with Braun Enterprises and Gow Media (InnovationMap's parent company). Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston

Kate Evinger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest from gBETA Houston. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Most accelerators are focused on growing startups in a specific way toward a specific goal. For gBETA Houston, that goal is toward a new round of funding or another accelerator, says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We look at early-stage companies, so those that are pre-seed or seed-stage that are looking for mentorship or support," Evinger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and we help get to that next step whether that's to raise an upcoming round or if they are looking to get into an equity-based accelerator program."

Evinger shares more details on the ongoing cohort on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the show.

Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US

A $2.23 million deal means a growing presence Texas for Octopus Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

A United Kingdom-founded energy company has expanded yet again in the Texas market. Octopus Energy announced the acquisition of Houston-based Brilliant Energy last week, and it's a huge opportunity for the company says Octopus Energy's United States CEO Michael Lee.

"This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes," he says. Click here to read more.