Accelerator: NASA’s Perseverance lands, San Antonio hypersonics lab rises

On Feb. 18, as millions of Texans battled a deep freeze, a U.S. spacecraft endured temperatures hotter than lava and speeds 16 times the speed of sound as it entered the Martian atmosphere 300 million miles away. People tuned in from around the world to see if NASA’s Perseverance rover would gently touchdown in Mars’ Jezero crater or become its own crater after a seven-month journey from Earth. The Rube Goldbergish landing involved parachutes, rockets, a “sky crane” and “seven minutes of terror” as controllers waited to see if the craft survived. It echoed a “Transformers” movie and captured imaginations. Perseverance, or Percy, landed successfully and started its mission to unlock the red planet’s secrets about possible past life. Its mission marks another step closer to humans setting foot there. And don’t forget that Percy has a drone helicopter called Ingenuity that’s the first human-made aircraft in another world. As Perseverance starts its slow-rolling tour of Mars, it’s not a stretch to say that the path to space goes through Texas and San Antonio. While not as flashy as Houston’s Johnson Space Center, Dallas’ aerospace behemoths, Boca Chica’s cool Starship spaceport or Austin’s shiny startups, San Antonians have quietly paved the way to the heavens behind the scenes for decades. From Air Force medical studies to Southwest Research Institute spacecraft to university research and contractor’s doing NASA’s grunt work, San Antonians continue to contribute to space exploration. While SwRI scientists aren’t directly involved with Perseverance, they did help with the rover’s big brother, Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012. Curiosity is still creeping around at a turtle’s pace collecting info about Mars. And as space exploration becomes cheaper and more accessible, the opportunities grow. Consider SpaceX rocking and rolling with Starship in South Texas and its McGregor test facility. Blue Origin launches its New Shepard spacecraft outside Van Horn. In Austin, Firefly, a rocket-builder startup, recently landed a $93 million NASA contract to haul a payload to the moon. In Houston, space construction firm Axiom Space became a “unicorn” when it raised $130 million to build the first commercial space station. So where does San Antonio fit into the commercial space boom? One green shoot is Exploration Architecture, or XArc, which is working with U.S. Transportation Command to determine facility requirements for suborbital flight around the world. The concept is to use a spacecraft — like SpaceX’s Starship — to move people and cargo anywhere in the world in minutes. XArc is helping determine the ground logistics and regulatory requirements. Besides a web of tech and aerospace outfits, a hungry workforce and a rekindling of an excitement about space, another sign of San Antonio’s growing space profile is the University of Texas at San Antonio. In 2018, the university hired Chris Combs as the Dee Howard-endowed assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department. He holds doctorate in aerospace engineering from UT-Austin, and his task was to start an aerospace engineering program. The city’s military ties and proximity to other Texas space hubs is one of the reasons he came here. “In terms of an aerospace engineering degree or certification at a university level, that hasn’t really existed here,” he said. “So we’re trying to fill that gap because we realized how much interest there is.” In Fall 2019, UTSA began offering an aerospace engineering certificate for undergrad engineering students. Combs hopes to help develop a “full suite of bachelor’s master’s and PhD degrees in aerospace” over the next several years. One of his research interests is hypersonics, the study of the effects of speeds exceeding 4,000 miles per hour. These mind-boggling forces create many issues for aircraft, including extreme heating and changes in air chemistry. Spacecraft reentering Earth’s atmosphere experience hypersonic speeds and immense heat. The problem multiplies when entering the Martian atmosphere, which is 200 times less dense than Earth’s. Hence the outlandish landings. Combs hopes to contribute to the study of hypersonics at UTSA, and the university is putting the final touches on a multi-million-dollar wind tunnel that can generate speeds up to seven times the speed of sound. “There’s other hypersonic wind tunnels out there, but one thing that’s really cool about ours is that we don’t have to just test with air,” Combs said. “We can put any kind of gas mix we want in our facility and operate with it. So we could even do a Martian atmosphere.” While scientists have studied hypersonics for decades, there’s renewed interest in the subject as aerospace firms eye the potential for high-speed travel. Also, the Defense Department is working to counter hypersonic missile threats from Russia and China. In August, the Air Force gave Atlanta, Ga.-based Hermeus corporation a contract to look at the feasibility of developing a hypersonic Air Force One. “When the military gets involved, things happen very fast in a lot of respects compared to maybe a NASA basic research timeline,” Combs said. “There’s been a ton of hypersonic interest coming from the DoD, and that’s where a good chunk of our funding has come from, although we are doing a lot of research for NASA.” Combs also sees the new UTSA lab helping commercial space firms. On San Antonio company working with military, SpaceX to move cargo anywhere in world in an hour or less “They’ve been able to get by with kind of legacy tech … that mostly NASA developed,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to push the envelope the way they want to, they might have to develop some of their own stuff a little bit more, which is going to take some research.” He said that San Antonio’s central location could help the city too, and that’s where facilities like Port San Antonio gain critical importance. “At hypersonic speed … about mach seven, you can get from San Antonio to anywhere in the lower 48 states in about 15 minutes,” he said. Of course, many of these real-world applications are hard to grasp in this moment. But Combs’ wind tunnel is very real, and he hopes to open it in the next month. Now, we just need a unicorn firm like Axiom Space to plant its flag in San Antonio. Brandon Lingle writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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