Houston company prepares for takeoff of first commercial space launch

houston, we (almost) have liftoff

Four commercial astronauts are headed to the ISS this week, thanks to a Houston tech company. Photo courtesy Axiom Space

A Houston-based space tech company has been preparing for liftoff, and all signs point to moving forward with the planned launch tomorrow, April 8.

Axiom Space’s first mission — Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1) headed to the International Space Station on SpaceX machinery — is ready for takeoff. SpaceX, Axiom, and NASA are targeting a launch time of 10:17 a.m. Docking is expected to occur Saturday, April 9, at around 6:30 a.m. Axiom will be airing a lifestream of the launch on its website.

Axiom Space, which reached $1 billion valuation and joined the Houston unicorn club last year after a $130 million investment round, is working on the first commercial space station to replace the ISS. The first launch of that mission is expected in late 2024. In the meantime, Axiom has a series of commercial launches to the existing station currently in orbit in order to prepare for development and orchestration of Axiom Station.

"This really represents the first step where a bunch of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low earth orbit that aren't members of the government are able to take this opportunity," says Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, at a recent press conference. "It's really a precursor mission to a fully commercial space station that we're developing."

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft arrived last week in the hangar at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and, according to a news release from Axiom, the spacecraft has since been mated with the Falcon 9 rocket.

On the 10-day mission, the Ax-1 crew will spend eight days on the ISS conducting research and testing technology and operations. The mission's members include:

  • Commander Michael López-Alegría of Spain and the United States
  • Pilot Larry Connor of the United States
  • Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe of Israel
  • Mission Specialist Mark Pathy of Canada

"This mission is important because not only are we're also developing the techniques we will be using communication from mission control to space, but we're also developing all the procedures and processes that make space travel possible," says Peggy Whitson, director of Human Space Flight at Axiom Space, at the news conference.


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

Houston-based Venus Aerospace has raised $20 million — and is one step closer to providing one-hour global travel. Photo courtesy of Venus Aerospace

Houston aerospace startup secures $20M series A investment round

money moves

A year after raising $3 million in seed funding, a Space City startup has closed its high-flying series A round to the tune of $20 million.

Venus Aerospace, which is working on a zero-carbon emission spaceplane that will enable one-hour global travel, closed its series A funding round led by Wyoming-based Prime Movers Lab. The firm has a few dozen breakthrough scientific companies in its portfolio, including another Houston-based, space-focused startup, Axiom Space. The round also saw participation from previous investors: Draper Associates, Boost, Saturn 5, Seraph Group, Cantos, The Helm & Tamarack Global.

Venus Aerospace was founded by Sarah "Sassie" and Andrew Duggleby, who serve as the company's CEO and CTO, respectively, in 2020 in California. The Texas A&M University alumni later moved the business into its current facilities in the Houston Spaceport.

"The U.S. is in the middle of a global race for hypersonic technology, and the breakthroughs being developed by Sassie, Andrew, and their team have numerous civilian and defense applications," says Prime Movers Lab General Partner Brandon Simmons in a news release. "Venus hit critical engine tests, vehicle design, and growth milestones that make me tremendously excited about the future of American hypersonic flight."

According to the release, the company will use the fresh funding on enhancing its three main technologies: a next-generation rocket engine, aircraft shape, and leading-edge cooling system, which allows for the Venus spaceplane to take off from existing spaceports.

"These recent advances in technology finally enable a spaceplane, a vehicle long imagined, but only now possible," says Andrew Duggleby in the release. "We will use this round of funding to get into flight testing and engine testing at Spaceport Houston. Bringing this technology forward into systems, drones and ultimately spaceplanes, it will take both new space veterans and bright new minds to solve. We've gone from impossible to hard, and this investment will allow us to knock down the next few steps."

The past year has represented significant growth for Venus, with developing contracts with the government and building out the company's team — and the company still has eight positions listed on its website. After building out and testing its technology, Venus also started a ground test campaign at Spaceport Houston.

"We are excited to continue our partnership with Prime Movers Lab and our other great investors. In the past year, with our initial funding, we have scaled from 3 people to 40. These are the world's best rocket scientists, engineers, and operators," says Sassie Duggleby in the release. "With this funding, we will continue to push forward toward our next technical milestones, hire great people, and scale our organization. We are excited to continue engineering the future of high-speed aviation."

Catch up on two big pieces of news landing at the Houston Spaceport. Image via fly2houston.com

Space City News: Houston Spaceport receives grant, unicorn hires architecture firm

rocketing roundup

The Space City is starting 2022 off strong with news launching out of the Houston Spaceport — a 400-acre space in Southeast Houston.

The two big headlines include a unicorn company releasing the latest details of its earthbound project and fresh funds from the state to support the space ecosystem in Texas.

Governor Abbott doles out $10M in spaceport grants

Texas has launched fresh funding into two spaceport projects. Image via fly2houston.com

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced $10 million in funding to two Texas spaceports as a part of the state's Spaceport Trust Fund. The Houston Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million and the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million.

The fund is administered by the Governor's Office of Economic Development and Tourism and was created to support the development of spaceport infrastructure, create quality jobs, and attract continuing investments that will strengthen the economic future of the state, according to a news release.

"For decades, Texas has been a trailblazer in space technology and we are proud to help cultivate more innovation and development in this growing industry in Cameron and Harris County," says Abbott in the release. "This investment in the Cameron County and Houston Spaceport Development Corporations will create even more economic opportunities for Texans across the state and continue our legacy as a leader in space technology."

Axiom Space hires Dallas-based architecture and engineering firm

Axiom Space has made progress on developing its 14-acre headquarters. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston-based unicorn Axiom Space has announced that it awarded Dallas-based Jacobs the architecture and engineering phase one design contract. The firm will be working on the 100,000-square-foot facility planned for the 400-acre Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport.

Axiom Space's plans are ro build the first commercial space station that will provide a central hub for research, to support microgravity experiments, manufacturing, and commerce in low Earth orbit missions, according to a news release.

"This is an exciting and historic moment for Axiom and the greater Houston area," says Axiom CTO Matt Ondler in the release. "For the first time, spacecraft will be built and outfitted right here in Houston, Texas. This facility will provide us with the infrastructure necessary to scale up operations and bring more aerospace jobs to the area. With this new facility, we are not only building next generation spacecraft, but also solidifying Houston as the U.S. commercial industry's gateway to space."

Axiom Space, which raised $130M in venture capital last year, is building out its 14-acre headquarters to accommodate the creation of more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

"Houston is a city built on innovation and is becoming a next-generation tech hub in the United States," says Ron Williams, senior vice president at Jacobs. "Privately funded infrastructure will drive U.S. leadership in space. Jacobs is committed to providing integrated solutions to accelerate the future of commercial space operations."

These five space tech stories were among the most read of 2021. Photo via NASA.gov

These are Houston's top space innovation stories of the year

2021 in review

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the space innovation and technology — from commercial space exploration to space tech and research funding — in Houston, five stories trended among readers.

Overheard: Experts share how Houston can lead commercial space exploration

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address. Click here to read the full article.

Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

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. Click here to read the full article.

Fresh funds: 2 Houston organizations dole grants to advance research

Here's what researchers raked in the cash to support their research. Photo via Getty Images

Funding fuels the research that supports the innovations of tomorrow. Two Houston-based scientific organizations announced funding recipients that are working on advancing research in space health and chemistry.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has announced almost $4 million in grants to four research teams. As more and more plans to launch humans into space continue to develop, TRISH is working to support research addressing human health in space. Click here to read the full article.

Space-focused fund with HQ in Houston rockets toward $20M goal

SpaceFund, based in Houston and Austin, has almost reached halfway for its $20 million fundraise. Photo via NASA/Unsplash

A venture capital firm co-located in Houston and Austin has announced a recent closing of a $20 million fund.

SpaceFund has raised $9 million toward its its $20 million BlastOff Fund as of this week — surpassing its initial first close goal of $5 million.

"We are thrilled to see how many investors are placing their trust in our team," says SpaceFund founder Rick Tumlinson in a news release. "We spent a lot of time slowly and carefully developing our processes and credibility, so we can better serve both investors and the amazing space startup community, and it's paying off."

Launched in 2019 with an initial fund that closed in August of 2020, SpaceFund has already invested in 13 exciting space startups. The new fund will build on those investments while also expanding its portfolio, according to the release.

"SpaceFund is about combining a bold approach with a very conservative diligence and investment process," says Meagan Crawford, SpaceFund's managing partner, in the release. "The BlastOff Fund continues our careful growth plan but is designed to accelerate our ability to place investment into those companies that are leading the Space Revolution." Click here to read the full article.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises has named four companies to its first cohort. Photo courtesy of The Ion

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space." Click here to read the full article.

Intuitive Machines is upgrading its presence in the Houston Spaceport. Image courtesy of IM

Houston space tech company reveals details on its new $40M facility

landing in Hou

A Houston-based space tech company focused on sending the first American spacecraft to the Moon since NASA's Apollo program is planning on expanding its presence here on Earth too.

Intuitive Machines announced its plans to move from its current facility in the Houston Spaceport into a new 125,000-square-foot building on a 12.5-acre plot also in the Houston Spaceport.

"We grew up as a company alongside Spaceport Houston, and we continue to grow as Spaceport Houston grows," says IM President and CEO Steve Altemus in a news release. "My partners, Dr. Tim Crain and Dr. Kam Ghaffarian, and I chose Houston because of its diverse talent, rapidly growing innovation ecosystem, and deep-rooted connection to spaceflight.

"Houston is our home, a place surrounded by family, friends, and people of true grit," he continues. "Whether it is a flood, pandemic, or landing on the Moon, Space City does not back down from a challenge, and this building is Intuitive Machines accepting one of humanity's greatest challenges."

The transition to the new space is expected in 2023, while Intuitive Machines' Moon landing is planned for the first quarter of 2022. From then, the company begins an annual launch plan delivering both NASA and commercial payloads to the Moon.

"We are thrilled that Intuitive Machines has decided to further invest in the tremendous aerospace ecosystem at Houston Spaceport," Houston Airports Director of Aviation Mario Diaz says in the release. "I believe Intuitive Machines is a real-life Houston success story that hits to the core of Houston Spaceport's mission – to create a focal point for aerospace innovation with a cluster of aerospace companies that will lead the nation in the transition from a government-focused to a commercially- driven space program."

NASA has tapped Firefly Aerospace, headquartered in Texas, to land science equipment on the moon. Courtesy of Firefly Aerospace.

This Texas company is on a mission to the moon with $93 million NASA contract

SHOOT FOR THE MOON

A local aerospace company is over the moon about its latest endeavor: a NASA-funded project to deliver scientific payloads to the lunar surface.

NASA recently awarded rocket-maker Firefly Aerospace $93.3 million to deliver a suite of science and technology demonstrations and equipment to the moon in 2023. The award is part of a NASA initiative — and key to its moon-focused Artemis program — that enables the agency to tap commercial partners to quickly dispatch and land science and technology payloads on the moon.

As part of the deal, Firefly is responsible for what NASA calls "end-to-end delivery services," meaning the company will compile the NASA-sponsored and commercial payloads, weighing more than 200 pounds, launch them from Earth, land them on the moon using its Blue Ghost lander, which was designed and developed at Firefly's Cedar Park facility, and manage mission operations.

"Our team's collective experience resulted in a creative technical solution to meet the needs of all these payloads, with a strong emphasis on both lunar science return and customer service through each mission phase," says Will Coogan, Firefly's lunar lander chief engineer.

For Firefly, the mission supports the company's overall goal to become the leading space-transportation company in the U.S. The NASA award was publicized the same day Firefly announced a new board of directors and its plans to implement an internal restructuring of the company, namely designating specific business units dedicated to launchers and spacecraft, and expanding its government-relations team.

This is the first NASA award of its kind for Firefly, which is scheduled to deliver the goods to the moon's low-lying Crisium basin, enabling NASA to further investigate the lunar surface, all with the goal of preparing for future human missions to — and sustainable human presence on — the moon.

"The payloads we're sending as part of this delivery service span across multiple areas, from investigating the lunar soil and testing a sample capture technology, to giving us information about the moon's thermal properties and magnetic field," says Chris Culbert, manager of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Firefly's Blue Ghost will land in an area of the Crisium basin known as Mare Crisium, a 300-mile-wide valley where NASA hopes to gain more understanding about the loose rock and soil, as well as the interaction of solar wind and Earth's magnetic field.

The lunar investigations will come shortly before NASA's planned missions to the moon and beyond. As part of its Artemis program, NASA aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, with the agency noting its partnerships with commercial companies like Firefly will help NASA "establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade," then use that knowledge to "take the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.

Houston startup equips medical teams with data-driven hiring tool

staffing up

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”