Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle. Photo via NASA.org

Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

A Houston company's technology will help space operators predict coronal mass ejections. Photo via nasa.gov

Houston extended reality company pivots, secures NASA contract

space tech

Following a rebrand, a Houston tech startup has secured a NASA contract for space weather technology.

Dauntless XR received a contract from NASA to advance its spatial computing platform, Aura. The technology uses satellite sensor data and mixed reality to help space operators with weather forecasting, including solar activity.

The company, which was founded by Lori-Lee Elliott as Future Sight AR in 2018 to focus on industrial construction, made a pivot to the space and defense industries and rebranded last year.

"We are in an incredibly interesting stage of space exploration, between record-breaking numbers of satellite launches, missions to the moon and Mars, and even returning asteroid samples to Earth," says Elliott, who serves as CEO, in the release. "With space weather, we are presented with an opportunity to make incredibly complex data easily accessible and provide a platform for innovation — and collaboration — for the space economy and space exploration."

The company is tasked with an extended reality space weather application. Per the release, the app will first be available on the Apple Vision Pro and the Meta Quest devices.

"Our first release will include a special edition of our Aura application with a 3D immersive experience visualizing coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, coming off the sun," the company explains in a blog post. "When a CME hits Earth, it produces auroras, but can also cause power outages, knock out radio signals & GPS, and interfere with rocket launches. As the space economy grows and more people use space data, we hope that our apps make that data easy to access and understand."

The company has also received $1.5 million in United States Air Force contracts. This included two SBIR II contracts that "focused on mixed reality assisted workflows, training and mission planning," according to Dauntless XR. Elliott is based in Houston and the company has offices in Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Hawaii.

Lori-Lee Elliott founded Dauntless XR. Photo via LinkedIn

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.

Report: Amid difficult market, Houston sees uptick in VC funding

seeing green

Houston-area startups saw a healthy increase in venture capital funding during the first half of 2024 compared with the same period last year, new data shows.

In the first six months of this year, Houston-area startups attracted $760.55 million in VC funding, according to the latest PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor. That’s up 17.7 percent from the $645.99 million collected in the first six months of 2023.

Keep in mind that these figures might not match previously reported numbers. That’s because PitchBook regularly adjusts data as new information becomes available.

In light of various factors, such as the ongoing hype over artificial intelligence, fundraising will likely continue to be challenging for U.S. startups as a whole, according to Nizar Tarhuni, vice president of institutional research and editorial at PitchBook, a provider of VC data.

Nonetheless, Bobby Franklin, president and CEO of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), points out that American venture capital “is finding its footing in 2024.”

Across the country, VC funding for startups in the first half of 2024 totaled $93.4 billion, up 6.5 percent from the $87.7 billion raised during the same period last year, according to the PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor.

“With steadily increasing deal values, especially across early-stage investments, more first-time financings, and increased crossover investor participation, [the second quarter of 2024] was a good one for VC,” says Franklin. “Now it’s up to founders, investors, and regulators to support, rather than stifle, these green shoots as the market heads toward a recovery.”

In the second quarter alone, VC funding in the U.S. jumped from $35.4 billion in 2023 to $55.6 billion in 2024. That’s an increase of 57 percent.

By contrast, the Houston area’s VC funding went in the opposite direction. Startups in the region scored $231.79 million in VC during the second quarter of 2024 vs. $333.17 million during the same period a year earlier. That’s a drop of 30 percent.

So far in 2024, Houston-based Fervo Energy dominates VC hauls for startups in the metro area. In March, the provider of geothermal power announced it had secured $244 million in funding, with Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company Devon Energy leading the round.

Fervo’s latest pot of VC represents more than 30 percent of all Houston-area VC funding during the first six months of 2024.

Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo, says the $244 million investment enables his company “to continue to position geothermal at the heart of 24/7 carbon-free energy production.”

Fervo says the latest VC round will support development of its 400-megawatt geothermal project in Beaver County, Utah. The Cape Station facility is expected to start generating power for the grid in 2026.

High-tech Formula 1 cars rev engines toward Houston for unique event

lights out and away we go

Houstonians with a passion for Formula 1 racing have to drive to Austin — and spend a lot of money — to get up close to the innovative cars that reach speeds over 200 miles per hour. That’s all going to change in September.

The Bayou City will be the next host of a Red Bull Showrun. Held on Saturday, September 7 at Discovery Green in downtown Houston, the free event will feature one of Red Bull’s championship-winning RB7 car flying down the streets around the park.

Best of all, it’s completely free to attend. Of course, those who want a great view of the action may purchase $50 grandstand tickets that went on sale this morning.

Held previously in other cities without F1 races such as New York, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., Red Bull uses the Showrun to bring the sport to new fans. Although the sport traces its history to the ‘50s, it has seen a boost in popularity thanks to Formula 1: Drive to Survive, a Netflix show that offers a behind-the-scenes look at key people on each of the 10 teams.

Red Bull’s Formula 1 team is riding particularly high at the moment, having won the Constructors Championship in both 2022 and 2023 on the strength of its car and driver Max Verstappen, who has won three consecutive Drivers’ Championship titles and currently leads the championship this year, too.

"The best part about any Red Bull Showrun is being able to bring Formula One to some fans that have already seen it, but more importantly to some who have never seen Formula One before," David Coulthard, a former Red Bull Racing Grand Prix driver who won 13 races during his 15-year career, said in a statement.

Held from noon to 2 pm, the RB7 car will make a number of trips on the streets, doing doughnuts and burnouts and generally being very fast and loud. In between those runs, the Showrun will feature appearances by other Red Bull athletes and a DJ battle between local legends DJ Mr. Rogers and Chase B, who is the longtime DJ for hip hop star Travis Scott. A complete lineup of appearances will be released at a later date, according to a release.

Fans will also have access to a fan zone with food vendors, F1 racing simulators, Oracle Red Bull Racing merchandise, and other free activities.

For more information, including how to purchase grandstand tickets, visit the event’s website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.