Intuitive Machines has successfully launched its lunar lander, which, once it lands on the moon, would be the first commercial vehicle to do so. Photo via Intuitive Machines

Houston-based Intuitive Machines just made one giant leap for mankind.

On February 15, the space exploration, infrastructure, and services company successfully launched its IM-1 mission Nova-C class lunar lander on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The launch followed a one-day delay.

The lunar touchdown of the Odysseus spacecraft is set for February 22, according to The Washington Post.

“If all goes well … it will become the first American spacecraft to gently set down on the moon’s surface since the Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972,” The New York Times notes.

It also would be the first commercial vehicle to land on the moon.

The IM-1 mission lander launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:05 a.m. CST. The lunar lander reached its orbit about 48 minutes later, and made its first communication with Intuitive Machines’ mission operations center in Houston at 12:59 a.m. CST.

The Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission is the company’s first attempted lunar landing as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, a key part of NASA’s Artemis moon exploration efforts. The science and technology payloads sent to the moon’s surface as part of the initiative are aimed at gearing up for human missions and a sustainable human presence on the moon’s surface.

NASA is the primary customer for this mission, paying Intuitive Machines $118 million to take its payloads to the moon’s surface, including a stereo camera to observe the plume of dust kicked up during landing and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals, according to The Times. Also aboard is cargo such as a camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the Moon Phases project by American artist Jeff Koons.

“We are keenly aware of the immense challenges that lie ahead,” Steve Altemus, co-founder, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “However, it is precisely in facing these challenges head-on that we recognize the magnitude of the opportunity before us: to softly return the United States to the surface of the Moon for the first time in 52 years.”

The liftoff of the IM-1 mission was targeted for a multiday launch window that opened at 11:57 p.m. CST on February 13. Intuitive Machines and SpaceX had concluded pre-launch testing on February 12.

“I feel fairly confident that we’re going to be successful softly touching down on the moon,” Altemus told The New York Times. “We’ve done the tests. We tested and tested and tested. As much testing as we could do.”

Last year, Intuitive Machines went public through a SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with Inflection Point Acquisition Corp. The Houston company’s stock trades on the NASDAQ stock market. Following the launch of the lunar lander, Intuitive Machines saw a spike in its stock price on February 15.

Axiom Space has announced its crew for its second commercial space launch. Image via Axiom

Houston space company announces historic flight crew

ready for liftoff

A Houston-based company is making history with its next commercial flight mission.

Axiom Space announced that Axiom Mission 2, or Ax-2, the second all-private mission to the International Space Station, will have members of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's national astronaut program aboard. It will also be the first private mission commanded by a woman: Peggy Whitson, Axiom's director of human spaceflight and former NASA astronaut.

“Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station cements our mission of expanding access to space worldwide and supporting the growth of the low-Earth orbit economy as we build Axiom Station,” says Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, in a news release. “Ax-2 moves Axiom Space one step closer toward the realization of a commercial space station in low-Earth orbit and enables us to build on the legacy and achievements of the ISS, leveraging the benefits of microgravity to better life on Earth.”

Expected to launch this spring, it's the second ISS mission for the commercial aerospace company founded in 2016. Ax-2 Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi will be the first Saudi astronauts to visit the ISS after Axiom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reached an agreement in 2022. With this mission, KSA will become only the sixth country to have two astronauts working on the ISS at the same time.

“This flight is an integral milestone of a comprehensive program aiming to train and qualify experienced Saudis to undertake human spaceflight, conduct scientific experiments, participate in international research, and future space-related missions contributing to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030,” reads a statement from the country.

Pilot John Shoffner, a businessman and aviator from Knoxville, Tennessee, with over 8,500 hours of flying under his belt, is the crew's fourth and final member.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Ax-2 crew aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the ISS from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and they will spend 10 days on the mission. The mission is targeted for launch in the spring of 2023, and will be the first private space mission to include both private astronauts and astronauts representing foreign governments.

Whitson, a Rice university alum, will add to her deep resume, which also includes adding even more space time to the standing record for the longest cumulative time of any astronaut in the history of the U.S. space program.

“I am honored and excited to lead the Ax-2 crew and mission,” Whitson says in a statement. “The space station is a vital platform for all types of research. We at Axiom Space are committed to working with NASA to open the door for private citizens to contribute to and advance the groundbreaking research aboard the station, forging the path for us to operate, live and work abroad Axiom Station.”

Axiom aims to build its own commercial space station to launch in late 2025. Axiom’s first mission completed last April, and the company, deemed a unicorn with a $1 billion valuation, has raised $200 million, including a $130 million series B round in 2021.

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Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

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Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Collab-Lab is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost. Designed to be convenient for families, it connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Houston med school develops revolutionary mRNA vaccine for elephants

zoology biology

An innovative team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital has worked with the Houston Zoo to develop a first-of-its-kind treatment for elephants, which has been administered to its first patient.

Tess, the beloved, 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo’s elephant herd, is recovering well after receiving the first-ever mRNA vaccine against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) 1A on Tuesday, June 18. The veterinary staff at the Houston Zoo will monitor Tess in the coming weeks to check her reaction and the efficacy of the vaccine.

EEHV 1A is a deadly infection for Asian Elephants. While generally benign in African Elephants, Asian Elephants can develop fatal hemorrhages. The fatality rate is a whopping 80 percent, making it one of the most serous threats to elephant populations outside of humans.

Anti-viral drugs have some effect on the disease, but two-thirds show no improvement. This has led to a search for a vaccine. For 15 years, the Houston Zoo and Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology have partnered to develop the drug. They have been helped by worldwide research from zoos and animal specialists, as well as graduate student Jessica Watts and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Houston's Texas Children’s Hospital. The research has been funded by private donations, research partnerships, and grants.

Before being inoculated, the mRNA vaccine was exhaustively tested, with the dosage being extrapolated from data involving horses.

Houston Zoo veterinarians will periodically test Tess to see if she is developing the appropriate antibodies. If she is and there are no adverse reactions, the next step will be to administer the vaccine to the rest of the Houston herd. Many of these are Tess’s own children (Tucker, Tupelo, Tilly, and Teddy) and grandchildren (Winnie).

Should the vaccine prove effective, the doses will be made available worldwide to zoos and private elephant sanctuaries. It is likely to have a significant benefit on protecting and preserving the Asian Elephant population. As of January, there are fewer than 50,000 of the animas left in the wild. They are currently listed as endangered, and breeding programs and research done through the Houston Zoo are essential to keeping the animals from going extinct.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New study says Houston is best city to grow business in

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The Bayou City has again received recognition as a top hub for business.

According to a new study by business revenue experts The RevOps Team, Houston is one of the cities in the US with 10 or more companies listed in the S&P 500, and has been named as the number one city with the fastest growing businesses in the U.S. Houston scored the highest Average Business Growth (ABG) at 26.7 percent. The business experts divided the data from the S&P 500 Index to see what businesses had the highest share-price growth in the last year.

Out of the 28 states and the cities with 10 or more businesses listed in the S&P 500, Houston was No. 1t for growing businesses with Atlanta, in second place with 15 companies listed and reaching an ABG of 24.2 percent. Two cities in Texas ranked in the top five with Dallas taking third place at 14.9 percent.

Texas ranked fifth place overall in the top five states for business growth with high-performing businesses like Vistra. Vistra was the company with the highest growth in Texas at 277.68 percent, followed by NRG Energy (NRG) with 170.43 percent and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) at 69.13 percent.

“You need to be ready to both leverage opportunity and adapt to challenges,” Kerri Linsenbigler of RevOps Team said in a news release. “Growing a business wherever you are in the U.S. is not for the faint-hearted, and business owners in Texas will be proud that they have ranked highly in the top five.”

Earlier this month, over a dozen Houston-based companies madeU.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

In December, the city was ranked among the 25 best metropolitan areas to start a small business in a report by personal finance website The Credit Review placed Houston in the No. 22 spot.