Public Release: 

From moon rocks to space food: UH research spans 40 years

Campus labs help produce advancements in aerospace industry

University of Houston

HOUSTON, Oct. 7, 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. Both 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 Lake.
  • 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 Expression - 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.

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