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.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

These were the most-read guest columns by Houston innovators in 2022

2022 in review

Editor's note: Every week, InnovationMap — Houston's only news source and resource about and for startups — runs one or two guest columns written by tech entrepreneurs, public relations experts, data geniuses, and more. As Houston's innovation ecosystem gets ready for 2023, here are some of this year's top guest contributor pieces — each with pertinent information and advice for startups both at publishing and into the new year. Make sure to click "read more" to continue reading each piece.

Is your New Year's resolution to start contributing? Email natalie@innovationmap.com to learn more.

Houston expert: How to navigate Gen Z's quiet quitting movement at your company

Your perspective on quiet quitting is probably generational, says one Houston expert and startup founder. Photo via Getty Images

This month, the internet has been discussing "quiet quitting," the practice of employees setting hard boundaries about when they work and to what extent they are willing to go beyond the outlined expectations of their jobs.

The conversation around quiet quitting has also been lively at the Ampersand offices. As a training company that is dedicated to training new professionals for employers both big and small, it's critically important for our team to have a good grasp on the relationship employees have with their jobs, and what motivates them to succeed. So we had a long meeting where we discussed what quiet quitting meant to each of us. Read more.

Houston expert shares how small business leaders can encourage PTO use

Retaining employees is no easy feat these days. Encouraging a healthy PTO policy can help avoid burnout. Photo courtesy of Joe Aker

As many small businesses continue to operate in a challenging, fast-paced environment, one thing that has arrived at breakneck speed is midyear, along with the summer months. Theoretically, to ensure work-life balance, most employees should have 50 percent of their PTO remaining to use for summer vacations and during the second half of the year. In reality, that is probably not the case given workers are hesitant to use their PTO, leaving approximately five days of unused PTO on the table during 2020 and 2021.

While the pandemic affected PTO usage the last two years, the labor shortage appears to be a major contributor in 2022, which has led to PTO hoarding and increasing levels of employee burnout. Although these factors can be compounded for small business owners because there are fewer employees to handle daily responsibilities, it is imperative for workers to take PTO, returning recharged with a fresh perspective on the tasks at hand. Read more.

Houston expert: 3 emotional intelligence tips for improving patient-practitioner experience

A Houston expert shares how to improve on communication in the health care setting. Image via Getty Images

After spending hours with healthcare professionals as both a consultant and patient, I know that it takes a special kind of person to take care of others in their most distressing and vulnerable times. That responsibility has been in overdrive because of COVID, causing emotional burnout, which in turn affects patient care. By equipping yourself with emotional intelligence, you can be more resilient for yourself and patients.

Emotional intelligence is keeping your intelligence high, when emotions are high.

Health care sets up an environment for a tornado of emotions, and the rules and regulations centered around patient-provider interactions are often complex to navigate. This leaves many on the brink of emotional exhaustion, and for survival’s sake, depersonalization with patients becomes the status quo. Feeling a disconnect with their patients is another added weight, as few get into this industry for just the paycheck – it’s the impact of helping people get healthy and stay healthy that motivates them. I’ve seen it time and time again with people in my life, as well as on my own patient journey as I battled stage 3 cancer. Read more.

Here's what types of technology is going to disrupt the education sector, says this Houston founder

Edtech is expected to continue to make learning more interactive, fun, and inclusive for people around the world. Photo via Pexels

Technology has always maneuvered education in a certain direction but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced it to shift towards a new direction entirely.

What started off as a basic video lecture turned into a more hybrid and innovative form of education, enabling student engagement and interactivity like never before. Social media forums allow teachers to pay one-on-one attention to students boosting their learning process.

With an edtech boom on the rise, there is a question of what further expansion in educational technology is expected. Here are some technology breakthroughs currently underway in the education sector. Read more.

Houston expert weighs in on marketing from an investor’s perspective

What should Houston startups know about marketing? Photo via Getty Images

Just what do investors want to see from a startup with regards to the company’s marketing? I recently spoke on this topic to a cohort of early-stage technology startup entrepreneurs at Softeq Venture Studio, an accelerator program that helps founders build investable technologies and businesses. Read more.

These elite Houston researchers were named among the most-cited in their fields

MVPs

Nearly 60 scientists and professors from Houston-area universities and institutions, working in fields from ecology to immunology, have been named among the most-cited researchers in the world.

The Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers 2022 list considers a global pool of public academic papers that rank in the top 1 percent of citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science. It then ranks researchers by the number of times their work has been cited, or referenced, by other researchers, which, according to the University of Houston, helps their findings "become more impactful and gain further credibility."

This year 6,938 researchers from 70 different countries were named to this list. About 38 percent of the researchers are based in the U.S.

“Research fuels the race for knowledge and it is important that nations and institutions celebrate the individuals who drive the wheel of innovation. The Highly Cited Researchers list identifies and celebrates exceptional individual researchers who are having a significant impact on the research community as evidenced by the rate at which their work is being cited by their peers," says David Pendlebury, head of research analysis at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, in a statement. "These individuals are helping to transform human ingenuity into our world’s greatest breakthroughs.”

Harvard University was home to the most researchers, with 233 researchers making the list, far outpacing Stanford University, which had the second highest total of 126 researchers.

Texas universities and institutions had a strong showing, too. The University of Texas at Austin had 31 researchers on the list, tying UT with the University of Minnesota and Peking University in China for the No. 35 spot. MD Anderson had 30 researchers on the list, the most among organizations in Houston, earning it a 38th place ranking, tied with the University of Maryland and University of Michigan.

Below is a list of the Houston-area highly cited researchers and their fields.

From UT MD Anderson Cancer Center

  • Jaffer Ajani (Cross-Field)
  • James P. Allison (Immunology)
  • Jan A. Burger (Clinical Medicine)
  • George Calin (Cross-Field)
  • Jorge Cortes (Clinical Medicine)
  • Courtney DiNardo (Clinical Medicine)
  • John V. Heymach (Clinical Medicine)
  • David Hong (Cross-Field)
  • Gabriel N. Hortobagyi (Cross-Field)
  • Robert R. Jenq (Cross-Field)
  • Hagop M.Kantarjian (Clinical Medicine)
  • Marina Y. Konopleva (Clinical Medicine)
  • Dimitrios P. Kontoyiannis (Cross-Field)
  • Scott E. Kopetz (Clinical Medicine)
  • Alexander J. Lazar (Cross-Field)
  • J. Jack Lee (Cross-Field)
  • Anirban Maitra (Clinical Medicine)
  • Robert Z. Orlowski (Clinical Medicine)
  • Padmanee Sharma (Clinical Medicine and Molecular Biology and Genetics)
  • Anil K. Good (Cross-Field)
  • Jennifer A. Wargo (Molecular Biology and Genetics)
  • William G. Wierda (Clinical Medicine)

From Baylor College of Medicine

  • Erez Lieberman Aiden (Cross-Field)
  • Nadim J. Ajami (Cross-Field)
  • Christie M. Ballantyne (Clinical Medicine)
  • Malcolm K. Brenner (Cross-Field)
  • Hashem B. El-Serag (Clinical Medicine)
  • Richard Gibbs (Cross-Field)
  • Heslop, Helen Cross-Field
  • Joseph Jankovic (Cross-Field)
  • Sheldon L. Kaplan (Immunology)
  • Joseph F. Petrosino (Cross-Field)
  • Cliona Rooney (Cross-Field)
  • James Versalovic (Cross-Field)
  • Bing Zhang (Cross-Field)

From Rice University

  • Plucker M. Ajayan (Materials Science)
  • Pedro J. J. Alvarez (Environment and Ecology)
  • Naomi Halas (Materials Science)
  • Jun Lou (Materials Science)
  • Antonios G. Nikos (Cross-Field)
  • Aditya D. Mohite (Cross-Field)
  • Peter Nordlander (Materials Science)
  • Ramamoorthy Ramesh (Physics)
  • James M. Tour (Materials Science)
  • Robert Vajtai (Materials Science)
  • Haotian Wang (Chemistry)
  • Zhen-Yu Wu (Cross-Field)
  • From University of Houston
  • Jiming Bao (Cross-Field)
  • Shuo Chen (Cross-Field)
  • Whiffing Ren (Cross-Field)
  • Zhu Han (Computer Science)

From UTMB Galveston

  • Vineet D.Menachery (Microbiology)
  • Nikos Vasilakis (Cross-Field
  • Scott C. Weaver (Cross-Field)
  • From UT Health Science Center-Houston
  • Eric Boerwinkle (Cross-Field)

Overheard: Houston experts call for more open innovation at industry-blending event

eavesdropping at the Ion

Open innovation, or the practice of sourcing new technologies and idea across institutions and industries, was top of mind at the annual Pumps & Pipes event earlier this week.

The event, which is put on by an organization of the same name every year, focuses on the intersection of the energy, health care, and aerospace industries. The keynote discussion, with panelists representing each industry, covered several topics, including the importance of open innovation.

If you missed the discussion, check out some key moments from the panel.

“If we want to survive as a city, we need to make sure we can work together.”

Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs. "From being competitive, we’ve become collaborative, because the challenges at hand in the world right now is too big to compete," she continues.

“The pace of innovation has changed.”

Steve Rader of NASA. He explains that 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are alive on earth today. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.”

“You can’t close the door. If you do, you’re closing the door to potential opportunities.”

— Michelle Stansbury, Houston Methodist. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.” She explains that there's an influx of technologies coming in, but what doesn't work now, might work later or for another collaborator. "I would say that health care as a whole hasn’t been very good at sharing all of the things we’ve been creating, but that’s not the case today," she explains.

“The thing that makes Houston great is the same thing that makes open innovation great: diversity.”

— Rader says, adding that this makes for a great opportunity for Houston.

“Some of our greatest innovations that we’ve had come from other industries — not from health tech companies.”

— Stansbury says. "I think that's the piece everyone needs to understand," she says. "Don't just look in your own industry to solve problems."

“Nobody knows what is the best technology — the one that is going to be the new oil."

— Garaizar says. “All of this is going to be a lot of trial and error," she continues. “We don’t have the luxury of time anymore.”