Here's who's at the helm of the newly announced Texas Space Commission. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.

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 space tech co. makes history with lunar lander launch

one small step

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.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are coming home. Photo courtesy of NASA

Here's how to watch the historic NASA/SpaceX splashdown in Houston

return flight

On May 30, the world watched a historic — and uplifting — moment in space travel, as NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley blasted off from Earth in a commercial craft created by Elon Musk's SpaceX. The NASA/SpaceX Dragon Endeavour flight was the first launch with astronauts of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program.

The SpaceX Demo-2 launch was a success: the duo orbited Earth and eventually boarded the International Space Station; Behnken and Hurley have been stationed there since.''

Now, space fans can watch the return of the NASA/SpaceX Demo-2 test flight, which is scheduled for 1:42 pm CST on Sunday, August 2. The splashdown represents the first return of a commercially built and operated American spacecraft carrying astronauts from the space station, according to NASA. The historic return signifies the close of a mission designed to test SpaceX's human spaceflight system, including launch, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations.

The ever-popular Space Center Houston (the official visitor center of NASA's Johnson Space Center) will stream the live splashdown in a socially distanced event. Visitors can engage in interactive, pop-up science labs to learn about the splashdown process, the specially crafted spacesuits, and more.

To make it a full day of exploration, guests can walk underneath a flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which is the only Falcon 9 on public display outside of SpaceX's headquarters, and is the same type of rocket used in the Demo-2 mission.

Guests can also take a tour of the Independence Plaza exhibit and walk inside a shuttle replica mounted on top of the historic shuttle carrier aircraft NASA 905. Myriad other experiences await; safety protocols will be in place.

Meanwhile, NASA will broadcast the splashdown coverage on NASA TV and the agency's website beginning early morning on August. 1, with coverage lasting through splashdown on August 2.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

A Houston space startup has been selected by NASA to design the first commercial habitat to attach to — and eventually replace — the International Space Station. Photo via axiomspace.com

NASA taps Houston startup to create commercial habitat to attach to the International Space Station

out of this world

A Houston-based space startup has been named the winner of a NASA competition — and the prize is getting to create the first commercial habitat in space.

Axiom Space has won NASA's NextSTEP-2 Appendix I solicitation, a call for a commercial habitat to be attached to the International Space Station's Harmony module, or Node 2. Axiom is working to create a commercial space station that would eventually serve as a replacement for ISS.

"We appreciate the bold decision on the part of NASA to open up a commercial future in low Earth orbit," Co-founder Michael Suffredini says in a news release. "This selection is a recognition of the uniquely qualified nature of the Axiom team and our commercial plan to create and support a thriving, sustainable, and American-led LEO ecosystem."

Axiom was founded by Suffredini, former NASA ISS program manager, and space entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian in 2016. The company has plans to launch a node module, research facility, manufacturing operations, crew habitat, and large-windowed Earth observatory all to be attached to the ISS. The targeted launch date is set for late 2024.

Part of Axiom's long-term plans include an Earth observatory. Photo via axiomspace.com

"Axiom exists to provide the infrastructure in space for a variety of users to conduct research, discover new technologies, test systems for exploration of the Moon and Mars, manufacture superior products for use in orbit and on the ground, and ultimately improve life back on Earth," continues Suffredini.

"As we build on the legacy and foundation established by the ISS Program, we look forward to working with NASA and the ecosystem of current and future international partners on this seminal effort."

Ghaffarian has decades of space expertise and founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, which went on to be a NASA engineering services provider before being acquired by KBR in 2018. Now, KBR — along with Boeing, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines, and Maxar Technologies — serves as a partner to Axiom.

"A commercial platform in Earth orbit is an opportunity to mark a shift in our society similar to that which astronauts undergo when they see the planet from above," Ghaffarian, who serves as Axiom's executive chairman, says in the release.

"Our goal is to advance the state of humanity and human knowledge. I am glad to see the Axiom team, with its advanced human spaceflight, engineering, and operations expertise, recognized for its potential to do just that and build off of ISS."

The Axiom Segment will be attached to the ISS until the station is phased out. Then, Axiom will launch a power source into space to serve Axiom's operations before detaching from the decommissioned ISS all together. Eventually, the Axiom Segment will be a free-flying commercial space station.

"There is a fantastically steep learning curve to human spaceflight," Suffredini says in the release. "The collective experience at Axiom is quite far along it. Because we know firsthand what works and what doesn't in [low Earth orbit], we are innovating in terms of design, engineering, and process while maintaining safety and dramatically lowering costs."

Mario Diaz, CEO of the Houston Airport System addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary this weekend. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: Aerospace and airport VIPs commemorate Space City Month at IAH

Out of this world

Houston, we have liftoff of a space-filled weekend. Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, and that calls for a celebration, as well as a commemoration.

Houston First, Space Center Houston, NASA, and United Airlines teamed up to host an international delegation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal C on July 17. Various space or Space City VIPs took the stage to discuss their memories of the lunar landing and the role Houston played in the monumental event.

“Our hope is to be an airport system that reflects Houston’s role as a leader on the global stage and to have our city standing as truly international business and cultural center. With both Bush and Hobby airports having earned four-star ratings, we are built to meet those expectations.”

— Mario Diaz, executive director at Houston Airport System. Bush Intercontinental Airport is also celebrating its 50th anniversary since opening in 1969.

“It is the innovative spirit of the people of this city that help give the world our new perspective. We are all neighbors, and we must all face the future as one. How wonderful that understanding is now with Houston having become the nation’s most diverse city in the country with one in four Houstonians being foreign born.”

— Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing a ranking released earlier this year.

“This week, we are celebrating this anniversary and time when we did so much more than we thought we could. … [the Apollo mission] was an inspiration to us then, and I think continues to be an inspiration to all of us even now.”

Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the United States for her 665 days in space.

“Houston is the Space City, because the Johnson Space Center is the home of human space flight. As you know, ‘Houston’ was the very first word spoken from the surface of the moon. And, it wasn’t a fluke. They knew who they needed to talk to, and it was Houston.”

— Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“In roughly three years, we will have astronauts back in the region of the moon — this time women and men. And soon after that, back onto the surface of the moon again in our mission called Artemis.”

— Geyer continues to say of NASA's lunar exploration plans.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Space Center Houston] inaugurated the completely restored mission control operations room from the Apollo era. We’ve done a restoration and taken it back to the 1960s, and it appears as if the flight controllers just got up to take a break.”

— William Harris, CEO of Space Center Houston. The organization is NASA's official tourism arm and houses 250,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space.

The Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport has broken ground, which means San Jacinto College is a step closer to its EDGE Center becoming a reality. Photo courtesy of San Jacinto College

Houston college system prepares for takeoff of its spaceport training system

Breaking ground

The first phase of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport broke ground last month, and that means a lot of things for a lot of entities like the Houston Airport System, the Houston City Council, and the Federal Aviation Administration, to name a few. But, to San Jacinto College, it means being one step closer to its on-site training facility, called the EDGE Center.

The facility will offer four training programs to start provided by San Jacinto College, the official education training partner for the Houston Spaceport. The programs include: composites manufacturing and repair technician, aerospace electrical assembly technician, aerospace structures technician, and mechatronics and industrial automation technician.

Aside from these four initial programs, the college will be able to over customized and individualized training as needed.

"We are excited for this opportunity," says Brenda Hellyer, San Jacinto College chancellor, in a release. "We look forward to creating an educational space that will support and enhance the workforce needs of current and future businesses in the Houston Spaceport. We thank the City of Houston, the Houston Airport System, and the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership for working with us to make this EDGE Center a reality."

EDGE is just one part of the 154 acres of development currently in the works at Ellington Airport. The full property includes 450 acres that will all eventually be developed.

"Once completed, Phase 1 will stand ready to encourage even more progress to help companies with development of satellite technologies, drone technology, and urban air mobility initiatives," says Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz in the release. "And beyond technology, it will help develop the talent to drive innovation forward. San Jacinto College is taking steps to open an aerospace workforce training center here, providing a talent pipeline that will help attract companies to Houston."

Houston's commercial spaceport plans were only the 10th to be approved by the FAA — and the only one to be centrally located to a major city (the site is less than 20 minutes from downtown Houston, according to the website). In October, the city council approved the $18.8 million Phase I budget for the project, which will account for developing the infrastructure of the project and, eventually, even coworking and innovation space for aerospace companies, according to a release.


Photo via fly2houston.com

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.