Home Biomedical research Space City: The Rice-NASA Relationship Through the Years

Space City: The Rice-NASA Relationship Through the Years


Illustrated by Jennifer Liu

By Madison Barendse 09/13/22 11:46 PM

Anyone who has been on campus must have heard the name “John F. Kennedy” repeated dozens of times recently. Indeed, Rice hosted a number of events this past weekend to commemorate the 60th anniversary of JFK’s “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech at Rice Stadium. Many of these events featured collaborations with NASA astronauts and administrators, marking just another result of Rice’s decades-long partnership with NASA.

For much of the Rice-NASA relationship, the collaboration between the two entities was largely unofficial. Their relationship was formalized in 2012 with the signing of the Space Act Agreement, a contract designed to deepen the research collaboration between Rice and NASA. Computer science professor Lydia Kavraki said the deal, which was renewed at the end of last month, is vital.

“The Rice Space Act agreement is essential for Rice,” Kavraki said. “It is a prerequisite for work [related to space] be done. We are very happy that it has been renewed.

Cooperation between Rice and NASA takes many forms. The Rice Space Institute, which formed in 2000 when the former departments of Physics and Space Physics and Astronomy merged, aims to strengthen research ties with NASA and promote space-related activities on campus and in Houston.

Rafe Neathery, a Will Rice College junior who recently completed an internship at Boeing, said RSI’s support of student projects prepared him to enter the aerospace industry. Neathery then said he was optimistic about the future of the Rice-NASA relationship.

“I came here hoping to find something with NASA and a lot of other students do too,” Neathery said. “It’s really cool that Rice is putting a new emphasis on opening up this avenue for students, and NASA is also willing to branch out and allow us to do some of this research for them.”

Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, highlighted the importance of collaboration in the aerospace industry, saying mentorship was key to advancing one’s own career.

“I was really lucky, in both [NASA and the FDA], to have mentors. And they were men who were willing to share and teach me everything they knew,” Wyche said.

Looking to the future of NASA, Wyche said she hopes to pass on this legacy of mentorship and collaboration across communities; and in doing so promote STEM careers and increase representation in engineering fields.

“I will say we need to increase the number of women and minorities, especially in engineering. And so that’s one of the things that I do…I try to give back and mentor others “Wyche said. “I always want people [not] be afraid to work with someone different. We have a common goal of wanting [explore space].”

Another space research center is the Center for Space Medicine, located near the campus of the Bioscience Research Collaborative. The CSM was the first department space medicine never established in any university or medical school, and is now a collaborative effort between Rice, NASA, the Baylor College of Medicine, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, and other institutions at the Texas Medical Center.

Space research also takes place in individual laboratories, such as the Kavraki Lab. In 2016, the laboratory started collaboration with NASA to develop a motion planning framework for the Robonaut 2, a robot intended to assist astronauts with various tasks aboard the International Space Station. Zak Kingston, a postdoctoral research associate at Kavraki Lab who participated in the Robonaut 2 project as a graduate student, said collaborations like this are beneficial to both Rice and NASA.

“We could bring our expertise and they could bring their issues to us, and we both had a really great collaboration,” Kingston said. “I think that’s probably true in all the things NASA is doing right now.”

Outside of labs and institutes, the impact of Rice’s partnership with NASA can be seen in student organizations such as the Rice Eclipse Rocketry Team and Students for Space Exploration and Development.

Founded in 2014, Rice Eclipse has worked with several labs on campus to develop rockets, engines, avionics hardware and software, and is currently designing a rocket to compete in the Spaceport America Cup this summer. Rice Eclipse provides its members with hands-on design and engineering experience, preparing them to enter the space industry and other STEM fields.

As for Rice Eclipse’s current plans, Neathery said he and the rest of the propulsion team were excited to test Titan II, a rocket engine that Eclipse has been working on for several years.

“[Testing the engine] is something that everyone has been looking forward to for a very long time,” Neathery said. “It will be a very big event for us, and it will be an important step for the club as a whole to demonstrate our ability to deliver a complex, long-term engineering project.”

Given the organization’s focus on space, one would assume that Rice’s partnership with NASA had a profound influence on Eclipse. According to Jake Sperry, acting president of Rice Eclipse, this impact is not felt equally by all Rice students.

“A lot of what NASA has helped Rice has been more on the graduate side, and because we’re an undergraduate club, there weren’t as many direct influences as we had from NASA” , Sperry, a Jones College junior, said. “Hopefully if the collaboration between NASA and Rice continues, we’ll see more of the student side of things.”

Rice’s SEDS Chapter is an international student organization that supports space exploration. A notable SEDS project is OwlSat CubeSat, a cubic satellite designed by SEDS members and funded by NASA and RSI to study extreme ultraviolet radiation in low Earth orbit. SEDS hopes to launch this satellite next year. Neathery, structural manager of the OwlSat project, said it was a great opportunity for students looking to gain hands-on experience.

“It’s a chance for us to learn how to build a satellite, which obviously isn’t easy,” Neathery said. “It’s been a huge learning curve for us to develop this.”

Brianna Bukowski, a sophomore at Sid Richardson College and acting vice president of SEDS, said she thought there was room for expansion in Rice’s relationship with NASA, particularly with the undergraduate students.

“I feel like Rice is really pushing this NASA connection that I think doesn’t exist, and that’s especially not accessible to undergraduates,” Bukowski said. “I’m interested to see which direction they’re going.”

Riya Misra contributed to this report.