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.

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

Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

guest column

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."

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Houston data solutions startup rebrands, expands to support neuroscience research

startup soars

With a new CEO and chief operating officer aboard, Houston-based DataJoint is thinking small in order to go big.

Looking ahead to 2022, DataJoint aims to enable hundreds of smaller projects rather than a handful of mega-projects, CEO Dimitri Yatsenko says. DataJoint develops data management software that empowers collaboration in the neuroscience and artificial intelligence sectors.

"Our strategy is to take the lessons that we have learned over the past four years working with major projects with multi-institutional consortia," Yatsenko says, "and translate them into a platform that thousands of labs can use efficiently to accelerate their research and make it more open and rigorous."

Ahead of that shift, the startup has undergone some significant changes, including two moves in the C-suite.

Yatsenko became CEO in February after stints as vice president of R&D and as president. He co-founded the company as Vathes LLC in 2016. Yatsenko succeeded co-founder Edgar Walker, who had been CEO since May 2020 and was vice president of engineering before that.

In tandem with Yatsenko's ascent to CEO, the company brought aboard Jason Kirkpatrick as COO. Kirkpatrick previously was chief financial officer of Houston-based Darcy Partners, an energy industry advisory firm; chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Houston-based Solid Systems CAD Services (SSCS), an IT services company; and senior vice president of finance and general manager of operations at Houston-based SmartVault Corp., a cloud-based document management company.

"Most of our team are scientists and engineers. Recruiting an experienced business leader was a timely step for us, and Jason's vast leadership experience in the software industry and recurring revenue models added a new dimension to our team," Yatsenko says.

Other recent changes include:

  • Converting from an LLC structure to a C corporation structure to enable founders, employees, and future investors to be granted shares of the company's stock.
  • Shortening the business' name to DataJoint from DataJoint Neuro and recently launching its rebranded website.
  • Moving the company's office from the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx) to the Galleria area. The new space will make room for more employees. Yatsenko says the 12-employee startup plans to increase its headcount to 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

Over the past five years, the company's customer base has expanded to include neuroscience institutions such as Princeton University's Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute for Brain Science, as well as University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DataJoint's growth has been fueled in large part by grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The work we are tackling has our team truly excited about the future, particularly the capabilities being offered to the neuroscience community to understand how the brain forms perceptions and generates behavior," Yatsenko says.

Deadline extended for inaugural InnovationMap Awards nominations

nominate now

If you didn't get a chance to submit your nomination for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave by the July 23 deadline — you're in luck. The nomination period has been extended, and you now have an extra week to submit.

The new — and final — deadline for nominations is July 30 by midnight. Submissions can be made online at InnovationMapAwards.com.

Following nominations, the nominated companies will receive an application to submit by August 13. The already nominated companies will receive their applications today. So, if you're interested in being a part of the awards and you haven't received an application from InnovationMap by the end of Monday, July 26, your company has not already been nominated.

The categories for the awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Health Care Business honoring a health care business with an innovative solution within life sciences
  • Energy Transition Business honoring an energy business with an innovative solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond
  • Space Tech Business honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration
  • Sports Tech Business honoring a tech business with an innovative solution within sports
  • Top Founder Under 40 honoring an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021
  • Lifetime Achievement Award honoring an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an internet voting portal ahead of the event
  • Techwave's Texas Advocate Awards honoring two non-Houston based companies selected by our presenting sponsor, Techwave

Earlier this month, InnovationMap named the eight judges for this year's awards. Click here to see who will be selecting the award finalists and winners.

Follow along on InnovationMap as we learn more about the program's inaugural nominees. Then, on September 8, we will host the finalists and a group of special guests at The Cannon for a celebration of the city's top innovators. A livestream of the event will be open to everyone on the night of the awards — tune in to find out who takes home the big win across all 10 categories.

Click here to RSVP for what will surely be a can't-miss event in Houston innovation.

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 oil and gas tech to pharmaceuticals — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Robert Kester, president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Robert Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. After several years of developing the device that could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites, Kester and his team saw a rising need for the tech — which also meant a need for Rebellion to scale quickly. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still works on his technology under the umbrella of the Honeywell brand. He joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the transition and what he's focused on now. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, interim president of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Last week, Serafina Lalany is acting as interim identifies the organization's new leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential, will act as interim executive director for the organization after Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, announced his resignation last week. HX's Chair Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Shaun Noorian founded Empower Pharmacy so he could create a business that was service focused, and now the company has grown and expanded — and is now working on building two new 85,000-square-foot facilities in Houston. Noorian, in a Q&A with InnovationMap, explained that Houston has been integral to his success.

"I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation," Noorian tells InnovationMap. "I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow.

"Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs," he continues. "Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth." Click here to read more.