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

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

A delegation from Houston consisting of former astronauts, aircraft experts, and local leaders were invited to the Paris Air Show to represent the Space City. Photo courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston takes flight at Paris Air Show just in time for Space City Month​

Oui, oui

As we move closer to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in mid-July, eyes around the world are turning to the United States and to Houston's NASA Johnson Space Center in celebration of the historic mission that first brought mankind to the moon. Thanks to that unprecedented interest, Houston was asked to be a featured partner of the USA Partnership Pavilion at the Paris Air Show last month.

Drawing nearly 2,500 exhibitors from 49 countries and more than 316,000 total visitors, the Paris Air Show continues to be the world's premier aerospace and aviation industry event. Houston's historic achievements set the stage to showcase how the region continues to be a global hub for technology and innovation.

A delegation of top Houston organizations brought distinct assets that showcased a collective advantage in competing for aerospace business. Led by the Greater Houston Partnership under the promotional banner Space City: The Gateway to Innovation, the group included:

  • Houston Spaceport, one of the nation's 10 licensed commercial spaceports co-located at Ellington Field (EFD).
  • Rice Space Institute, which has helped to establish Rice University's international reputation in all areas of space research by investing in efforts to further the development of new ideas and innovation in the broad area that is space exploration and utilization.
  • SpaceCom, the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, an annual two-day conference that connects NASA technology with the private sector to fuel future innovation
  • Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of NASA's Johnson Space Center and a leading science and space learning center.
  • Blue Bear Capital, a Houston-based venture capital firm investing in fast-growing private companies that apply data driven technologies and innovative business models to the global energy supply chain.
  • Trumbull Unmanned, A Forbes Top 25 Veteran Founded startup based out of the Houston Spaceport that collects, analyzes, and visualizes critical data for the energy sector, primarily supporting oil and gas and environmental efforts.

As an anchor NASA community and home to the sharpest minds in aerospace, life sciences, energy and innovation, it was only fitting that Houston have a prominent presence in the show at Le Bourget. Among the 300 exhibitors representing the United States in the USA Partnership Pavilion, twenty of which were states, Houston was the only city with a major presence. Throughout the week, the Houston delegation participated in a schedule of high-profile thought-leadership and hospitality events to engage and educate global industry and government decision-makers and influencers.

For our part at the Greater Houston Partnership, we were able to conduct a series of meetings with companies from around the world, gathering more than 40 international and domestic economic development leads. The show is also a great media opportunity that allowed us to secure nearly 20 interviews for our delegation members with print and broadcast outlets from across the U.S. and Europe.

The USA Partnership Pavilion's week-long celebration of innovation and human achievement was led Apollo Astronauts Brig. Gen. Charlie Duke, and Houston-natives Col. Walt Cunningham and Col. Al Warden. Their presence served as a tangible way to connect our nation's achievements to the innovative future of the global aerospace industry.

"The 50th anniversary is such a unique time in history. It gives us an opportunity to think back about what we did, realize where we are today, and where we want to be in the future," says Col. Al Worden, "The most important thing about the space program was not so much about putting a man on the moon, it was about developing the technology to get there. Those technologies have made this country so successful, and I hope we continue to see that type of commitment to technology development in the future."

Houston delegates were asked to participate in several thought leadership panels.

"As we continue to explore further into the universe, there are a myriad of technical challenges that need to be overcome," says David Alexander, director of Rice Space Institute, who moderated a panel discussion on advancing technologies that will help humans physically and mentally adapt to deep space exploration. He was joined by industry leaders from United Launch Alliance (ULA), Lockheed Martin, Virgin Galactic, and Harris Corporation for the conversation centered around the use of artificial intelligence, 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

Governments around the globe including those in Europe, China and of course the United States have accelerated a discussion about sending humans back to the moon as a key step in our continued human exploration of deep space. This concept is also proving attractive to private companies, with an increase in public-private partnerships and a broader role being played by commercial entities in government aspirations.

Former astronaut and Space Station Commander turned venture capital leader Tim Kopra participated in a panel discussion on this very topic alongside representative from United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Lockheed Martin, Deloitte, and the U.S. Air Force. Although Kopra's Blue Bear Capital's primary target are data-driven technologies in the energy industry, he notes that "there are a lot of intersections between energy and aerospace, and Houston's melting pot of global industries has turned the region into a hot bed for innovation with broader application of technologies."

The centerpiece of the Houston delegation's presence at the Paris Air Show was an executive briefing on June 19 featuring keynote remarks from Kopra that helped set the tone for the work Houston continues to do in innovation and aerospace technology. Kopra discussed his background with NASA, the transition into the funding scene that supports the region's growing innovation ecosystem, and what Houston has to offer businesses looking to expand their operations in the areas of aerospace, manufacturing, and digital technology.

A panel discussion followed, addressing topics that included educating the next generation of engineers and explorers, the intersection of NASA technology and the private sector, the next frontier of space exploration and the unique position that Houston has in pioneering those efforts.

"Over the past 58 years, Johnson Space Center has led the U.S. and the world in human exploration, discovery, and achievement in space," Kopra tells the audience. "Now we are in a position of transitioning a lot of those capabilities into the civilian sector."

The Houston Spaceport is one big step in that ongoing evolution. As the only commercial spaceport in the nation centered in a large metropolitan area, the Houston facility will have unmatched access to resources for companies and operators, said Arturo Machuca, general manager of the spaceport.

"The Houston Spaceport is being developed to ensure Houston stays relevant in commercial aerospace and aviation activities," he says. "Houston continues to hold a strong value proposition for companies looking to enter the aerospace industry with a unique set of advantages including the proximity to NASA's Johnson Space Center, unparalleled infrastructure through the Houston Airport System, and a strong talent base."

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Josh Davis is the director of International Investment and Trade at the Greater Houston Partnership and organized the Partnership's participation at the Paris Air Show and gathered the delegation.

Houston is celebrating 50 years since the Apollo moon landing. Here are somethings you can expect to see in Houston during Space City Month. Photo via NASA.gov

Here's what you should look out for in Houston during Space City Month

The eagle has landed

Fifty years ago, NASA sent a crew of astronauts to the moon and back while a team controlled the mission from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In honor of this history-making experience, the Space City is playing host to Space City Month this July, and it's a time to recognize the science and sacrifice it took to put man on the moon, as well as look forward to the future of NASA and space exploration.

Restored Apollo 11 mission control center

Photo via NASA.gov

Ever wonder what it was like to be in the room where it happened — where Neil Armstrong radioed in to give his famous, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" statement? Now you can.

Space Center Houston has restored the mission control center where dozens of professionals kept watch and records over the astronauts making their harrowing journey. The exhibit just opened, and visitors can sign up for free tickets.

The restoration has been years in the making. Retired mission control experts contributed to the exhibit and the efforts were even funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $500,000.

Special NASA programming

The video and audio coverage were an incredible component for the Apollo missions to deliver to an earthly audience. Now, celebrating 50 years, NASA's bringing back the special programming.

From noon to 2 pm on July 19, the organization will broadcast live from NASA's newly-restored Apollo mission control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston, along with a couple other historic locations like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the Smithsonian National Air, and the Space Museum in Washington.

Watch the show on something that wasn't available in 1969: The internet. More specifically, find the stream on the NASA Live page.

InnovationMap interviews with space innovators

Tim Kopra

Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies. Courtesy of Tim Kopra

Much like we did for Pride Month, our Featured Innovator section — where we run weekly innovator interviews — will be taken over by a special series. Four different interviews with four different space innovators will be published on Wednesdays for the rest of the month.

Can't wait until Wednesday? Check out this interview we did with an astronaut turned venture capital investor, Tim Kopra. He spent a career total of 244 days in space before re-entering earth's orbit and civilian life. As different as his career is now compared to life in space, he actually sees a similarity.

"On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams," Kopra tells InnovationMap in the article. "It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works."

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Ventilator designed by Rice University team gets FDA approval

in the bag

A ventilator that was designed by a team at Rice University has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ApolloBVM was worked on March by students at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The open-source plans were shared online so that those in need could have access to the life-saving technology. Since its upload, the ApolloBVM design has been downloaded by almost 3,000 registered participants in 115 countries.

"The COVID-19 pandemic pushed staff, students and clinical partners to complete a novel design for the ApolloBVM in the weeks following the initial local cases," says Maria Oden, a teaching professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the OEDK, in the press release. "We are thrilled that the device has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization."

While development began in 2018 with a Houston emergency physician, Rohith Malya, Houston manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson Healthcare Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Kirby Corporation that licensed ApolloBVM in April, has worked with the team to further manufacture the device into what it is today.

An enhanced version of the bag valve mask-based ventilator designed by Rice University engineers has won federal approval as an emergency resuscitator for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Stewart & Stevenson

The Rice team worked out of OEDK throughout the spring and Stewart & Stevenson joined to support the effort along with manufacturing plants in Oklahoma City and Houston.

"The FDA authorization represents an important milestone achievement for the Apollo ABVM program," says Joe Reniers, president of Kirby Distribution and Services, in the release. "We can now commence manufacturing and distribution of this low-cost device to the front lines, providing health care professionals with a sturdy and portable ventilation device for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Reniers continues, "It is a testimony to the flexibility of our people and our manufacturing facilities that we are able to readily utilize operations to support COVID-19 related need."

The device's name was selected as a tribute to Rice's history with NASA and President John F. Kennedy's now-famous speech kicking off the nation's efforts to go to the moon. It's meaningful to Matthew Wettergreen, one of the members of the design team.

"When a crisis hits, we use our skills to contribute solutions," Wettergreen previously told CultureMap. "If you can help, you should, and I'm proud that we're responding to the call."

Nonprofit arts event in Houston pivots to virtual experience

the show must go on

As summer rolls on and Houston adapts to the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic, myriad arts organizations are pivoting, morphing their in-person events into virtual experiences.

One such event is the 49-year-old, annual Bayou City Arts Festival, which has just announced that it has reimagined its outdoor event originally scheduled for October 10-11 this year. Due to the cancelation of the event because of coronavirus concerns, all 2020 festival tickets will be honored at Bayou City Art Festival events in 2021, according to organizers.

In place of an in-person festival in 2020, a Bayou City Art Virtual Experience will take place the week of October 5-11. The event will feature an art auction, virtual performances, art projects for kids with Bayou City Art Festival nonprofit partners, creative activities with Bayou City Art Festival sponsors and more, according to a press release.

"The decision to convert our Bayou City Art Festival Downtown to a virtual experience was difficult, but the health and safety of our community and our festival family is our top priority," says Kelly Batterson, executive director of the Art Colony Association.

Organizers have also announced that a fundraising campaign dubbed Save Our Art - One Passion. One Purpose. One Community, in partnership with the City of Houston to support the arts and the festival's local nonprofit partners.

Interested parties can donate by sending a text SaveOurArt to 243725, donating via our website and Facebook page, or by participating in the many upcoming fundraising events.

Festival fans can stay up to date via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on CultureMap.