Fans can visit the lunar surface at Space Center Houston. Rendering courtesy of Space Center Houston

In a town dubbed “Space City,” it takes a significant development to be dubbed a game changer in anything cosmic-related, but our favorite stellar destination has done so with some big developments.

Space Center Houston has revealed a new plan to address the ever-growing need for space exploration learning and training with two massive structures centering on our moon and Mars at its fan-favorite destination (1601 E NASA Pkwy.).

The new, appropriately dubbed Lunar Mars facility will gather guests, NASA, commercial space partners, colleges, universities, and global space agencies to collaborate on new technologies for present and future human spaceflight, per press materials.

Meanwhile, a new, elevated exhibit hall over the two surfaces will offer the public immersive experiences to observe astronaut training first-hand while experiencing the future of space exploration as humans return to the Moon and eventually on to Mars.

Specifically, the Lunar Mars facility will boast simulated surfaces of the moon and Mars, plus modular surface labs. According to Space Center Houston, these labs will design and test instruments and techniques for surface exploration, support testing lunar and Martian rovers on a one-mile indoor track, allow engineers and astronauts to practice working in reduced gravity, and conduct important emergency procedures.

From the earth to the moon in the new facility. Rendering courtesy of Space Center Houston

Guests can look forward to an immersive experience that allows viewing of astronaut training in-person, while also offering education on missions, challenges and benefits of the space industry.

“Imagine having a front row seat on the surface of the moon or Mars right here in Houston,” noted William T. Harris, the center’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Space Center Houston is recognized for providing meaningful, moving experiences about people and the courage, innovation and teamwork they use to expand the boundaries of what’s possible. We inspire our guests to connect with the significance of space exploration, to pursue their own path in space, or simply follow along as incredible feats of human spaceflight continue to bring joy and wonder to the world.”

A look at the massive new facilities. Rendering courtesy of Space Center Houston

More on that game-changing news: Space Center Houston also revealed a new logo/brand identity that the organization says in press materials represents the evolution of Space Center Houston and its future, and its mission to educate the public.

All this comes as part of a Facilities Master Plan and more plans to expand, which will be revealed in 2023.

Sound timing, as current estimates show that the global space industry is projected to grow nearly five times its current size by 2050. With 77 government space agencies currently operating around the globe, Texas boasts a key advantage as home to 17 of the world’s top 20 aerospace manufacturers, per the center.

Since its inception 30 years ago on October 16, 1992, the beloved Space Center Houston has seen more than 24 million starry-eyed guests enter its gates. Clearly, however, it’s time to rocket forward, as Houston and the nation, to quote President John F. Kennedy, choose to go to the moon, the Red Planet, and beyond.

“Space is expanding once again and a new space age is upon us,” Harris added. “With new ambitions, new players and new challenges, we will shift our focus from being a curator of past achievements to also facilitating new feats in space.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Local kids can pursue STEM and space dreams thanks to the generous gift. Photo courtesy of Space Center Houston

Jeff Bezos' foundation gifts Space Center Houston with $1 million grant

space funds

Billionaires such as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos may be blasting off into the beyond, but for now, space travel is still primarily relegated to the expert astronauts who train here in Houston.

Now, a new $1 million grant to our beloved hub of all things cosmic may just inspire local kids to rocket towards a career in space exploration or STEM careers. Space Center Houston has just received the generous, two-comma grant from Blue Origin, Bezos' company.

Blue Origin auctioned off seats on first crew New Shepard suborbital flight, which yielded an impressive $28 million. Bezos, his brother Mark, and Wally Funk, one of the Mercury 13 women will join the auction winner on the upcoming trip.

With the $28 million proceeds, Blue Origin then awarded $1 million to 19 organizations (each) through its foundation, Club for the Future.

"This donation is enabling Club for the Future to rapidly expand its reach by partnering with 19 organizations to develop and inspire the next generation of space professionals," said Bob Smith, Blue Origin CEO, in a statement. "Our generation will build the road to space and these efforts will ensure the next generation is ready to go even further."

The $1 million Space Center Houston received will go towards the center's Title 1 school field trip program, enabling students with access to the center's extensive space artifact collection, per a press release. Space Center Houston's Girls STEM Pathway initiative, which promotes learning experiences for girls in STEM careers, will also receive funds. The comprehensive, six-phase initiative includes an introductory elementary school experience, a middle school project-based STEM experience, a summer bridge program with mentoring support, and a program for high school girls to engage in scientific research, the center notes.

"Blue Origin's grant will further enable Space Center Houston to provide immersive science learning experiences for underserved Houston area youth," said the center's president and CEO, William T. Harris, in a release. "We are very thankful to Blue Origin for helping us inspire and prepare students for future STEM careers. With Blue Origin's support, we can empower students with hands-on STEM learning opportunities through the wonders of space exploration."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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 new exhibit is the first of its kind and will be open later this summer. Courtesy of Space Center Houston

New SpaceX exhibit expected to land at Space Center Houston this summer

Mission control

Space Center Houston has a new exhibit launching this summer. The nonprofit will have a Falcon 9 first stage booster on display starting later this summer.

The booster was used in two missions, which marked the first time a refurbished booster was used on a NASA mission. It first launched in June 2017 with a commercial resupply mission (CRS-11) and returned successfully to Earth. Then, the booster was flown a second time in December 2017 (CRS-13).

"We're excited to welcome Falcon 9 to our growing center," says William T. Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston, in a release. "It's part of an historic achievement designing a reusable rocket to further space exploration and America's commercial space industry. The new exhibit is one way we're interpreting the future of human spaceflight. We are deeply grateful to SpaceX for their contribution."

The booster, B1035, is one of only two of its kind on display, and the exhibit is the first commercial space exhibit for the museum. The booster will be displayed near Independence Plaza and will be presented on its side and raised 14 feet so that visitors can walk underneath it and learn about reusable technology in space and how it's making space travel more accessible.

NASA's Space Shuttle Program was the first to bring reusable spacecraft into existence, which lead to more accessibility and the creation of important advances in space technology, such as the International Space Station. SpaceX is continuing this technology within the commercial realm of space travel.

The exhibit was announced at Space Center Houston's Galaxy Gala presented by Chevron on Thursday, May 9. The event was led by co-chairs Peggy Kostial with Shanell and Walker Moody. Guests at the event enjoyed special presentations and sneak peeks, while raising nearly $700,000 for the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation. The proceeds will support the nonprofit's extensive education programs that benefits serving youth and educators from around the world.

"We strive to inspire youth to be part of the NASA mission," says Harris in the release. "From launching a rocket to designing a future spacecraft, we want everyone to have exceptional learning opportunities and to think outside the box like a scientist, engineer or astronaut. Thank you to our generous sponsors and donors whose contributions help us provide authentic learning experiences to people of all ages."

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.