Press Release

From Moon Rocks to Space Food: UH Research Spans 40 Years

By SpaceRef Editor
October 7, 2002
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Campus Labs Help Produce Advancements in Aerospace Industry

HOUSTON, Oct. 2, 2002 – From the earliest analysis of moon
rocks and today&’s operation of the International Space Station,
to future missions to Mars and beyond, the University of Houston
has a long tradition of advancing space research and contributing
to the development of the aerospace community.

Many of the university’s current connections to space, including
research and community projects, will be highlighted during talks,
presentations and events Oct. 10-19 during the World Space Congress
2002 in Houston.

In the 1960s, UH biochemist John (Juan) Oro conducted some of the
earliest experiments investigating the origins of life on earth
and the composition of the cosmos, establishing him as a world leader
in these fields. Oro received some of the first lunar samples that
were released by NASA for analysis, and during the 1970s he helped
design experiments and build equipment used during the Viking mission
to investigate the existence of life on Mars.

Today, the search for extraterrestrial life goes on at UH, such
as geoscientist Henry Chafetz’s studies of environments where
microbial life, or evidence of past life, is most likely to be found
on other worlds. UH researchers also are planning to go back to
the moon and to Mars to help develop space outposts. Alex Freundlich,
Charles Horton and Alex Ignatiev in the Texas Center for Superconductivity
and Advanced Materials are developing solar cells that can be made
on the moon using lunar resources. The solar cells would collect
sunlight and convert it into electricity to support a lunar base.
UH physicist Lawrence Pinsky is developing computer simulations
of space radiation, which can seriously affect astronaut safety.
These UH projects are among several that will be discussed during
the World Space Congress.

Additional UH space research is highlighted at

Designated a Space Grant Institution, between 5 percent and 15
percent of UH’s annual external research funding in each of
the past 10 years has come directly from NASA, including grants
from NASA’s Exobiology Program and from the National Space
Biomedical Research Institute. The Texas Learning and Computation
Center, a high-tech research and educational facility at UH, was
established in 1999 with nearly $4 million from NASA, as well as
funding from the Texas Legislature.

Among UH’s many contributions to the space program
and space research:

  • Thirteen current and former astronauts have received degrees
    from either the University of Houston or the University of Houston-Clear
  • Since 1965, UH has partnered with NASA to provide support for
    about two dozen faculty members each summer to participate in
    the NASA Summer Faculty Fellowship Program, where they are directly
    involved with space program research projects at the Johnson Space
    Center. Faculty and a handful of students in areas such as engineering,
    physics, math and computer science have participated.
  • In 1989, the Space Vacuum Epitaxy Center was established at
    UH as a NASA Commercial Space Center. In the 1990s, SVEC researchers
    set out to capitalize on the nearly-pure vacuum of space to build
    precision-made thin-film materials with unique and useful properties.
    In 1994, the space shuttle Discovery carried the 12-foot Wake
    Shield Facility into orbit, the first of three such flights for
    the orbiting laboratory. One of the most complex university-sponsored
    payloads ever delivered by NASA, the Wake Shield was the first
    experiment to comprehensively characterize the wake vacuum of
    a spacecraft in low earth orbit. Materials grown in orbit have
    led to terrestrial applications such as bionic eyes, high-efficiency
    lasers and new sensor technology.
  • Since 1992, the UH Cullen College of Engineering has administered
    an interdisciplinary graduate program in aerospace engineering
    that offers master’s and doctoral degrees.
  • In June, 2002, UH and five other Texas universities received
    $15 million from NASA for a five-year research initiative focusing
    on developing advanced distributed intelligence and new materials
    for use in the next generation of aircraft and aerospace vehicles.
    UH researchers will be working to improve flight and mechanical
    performance and safety of future aircraft and spacecraft, as well
    as fabricating new nanomaterials for flight vehicles that are
    stronger and lighter than conventional materials.

One of the key players in UH’s involvement with the space
program is the Institute for Space Systems Operations (ISSO), which
operates the Houston Partnership for Space Exploration (HPSE). The
partnership was established in 1992 by the Legislature of the State
of Texas as a line item in the state budget at $230,000.

The general mission of the ISSO/HPSE is to advance the development
of the aerospace community in the Houston area and Texas, with particular
emphasis on the academic, industrial and government programs associated
with the NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Houston and
UH-Clear Lake. ISSO’s state funding goes toward supporting
space-related research projects conducted by faculty, students and
personnel at those institutions.

In 1995 the state increased HPSE funding to $430,000 a year to
enable a post-doctorate aerospace fellowship program, which pays
for recent Ph.D. graduates to conduct research at NASA-JSC and at
the two universities.
Under the leadership of director David Criswell, the ISSO has provided
seed grants and fellowships for more than 170 space-related projects
that subsequently stimulated new research funding from external
sources totaling more than 3.3 times the amount of the ISSO funding
during its first decade. In 2001 the leverage of state funds exceeded
seven-to-one. Investigators receiving ISSO grants must submit proposals
to outside sources for external funding.

Criswell also has provided funding to small projects that enable
educational or outreach activities, such as an astrobiology multimedia
project (,
spearheaded by George Fox, UH professor of biology and biochemistry
and a principal investigator in NASA’s Exobiology Program.

In May 2002 ISSO awarded $90,000 to eight UH and three UH-CL professors.
Details on ISSO projects can be viewed on the Web at
Some ISSO-funded projects and their investigators include:

  • Optical Tracking for Telepresence and Teleoperation
    Space Applications
    – Ioannis Kakadiaris, assistant
    professor, computer science; Karolos Grigoriadis, associate professor,
    mechanical engineering; Darby Magruder and Kenneth Baker, NASA-JSC.
    Human exploration and development of space will demand a great
    deal of extravehicular activity from astronauts. Robotic devices
    remotely operated will be needed to alleviate the astronaut workload
    as much as possible. One such system is the ROBONAUT (ROBOtic
    astroNAUT), an anthropomorphic robot with two arms, two hands,
    a head, a torso and a stabilizing leg, currently being developed
    at NASA-JSC. UH researchers are developing a ROBONAUT user interface
    that would allow a human operator, physically removed from the
    task, to send commands to the robot over a telecommunication system.
    Kakadiaris will present a talk on this research during the World
    Space Congress 2002.
  • Development of Extended Shelf-Life Tortillas for Long-Duration
    Space Missions
    – Clinton Rappole, professor, Hilton
    College of Hotel and Restaurant Management; aerospace fellow Steve
    French; Michele Perchonok, NASA-JSC. Tortillas currently available
    for Space Shuttle missions develop a bitter taste shortly after
    production, which becomes unacceptable after six months. Researchers
    are investigating the physical and chemical changes that take
    place in the tortillas during storage in an effort to develop
    a stable product for missions of a year or longer.
  • Compact MRI System for Long Duration Space Flights
    – Jarek Wosik, research associate professor, electrical
    and computer engineering; Suzanne Schneider, NASA-JSC. Researchers
    are using high-temperature superconducting materials to develop
    a new class of compact medical instruments, such as magnetic resonance
    imaging systems, suitable for use on the International Space Station
    and in future manned missions to Mars. The proposed instrument
    would also be suitable as a routine laboratory or clinical device
    in earth-bound clinics and hospitals.
  • The Effect of Simulated Microgravity on Microbial Gene
    – George E. Fox, professor, biology
    and biochemistry; Richard Willson, associate professor, chemical
    engineering; Duane Pierson and Neal Pellis, NASA-JSC. One of the
    unique aspects of space flight is extended exposure to microgravity.
    While many studies have examined the effects of prolonged weightlessness
    on people, far less work has been done on bacteria and it is not
    obvious that they would be affected at all. UH researchers and
    collaborators have found that simulated microgravity may affect
    the expression of genes in bacteria, raising the possibility of
    changes in virulence properties and/or antibiotic resistance.

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About the University of Houston

The University of Houston, Texas’ premier metropolitan research
and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers
and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate,
civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university
in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and
service with more than 34,400 students.

SpaceRef staff editor.