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Why South Carolina could be NASA's next frontier

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By Jenny Peterson

Collaborative partners statewide are shooting for the moon to try and create a permanent NASA facility in South Carolina.

While the space agency currently has no permanent footprint in South Carolina, a consortium was created in 2020 specifically to expand the relationship with NASA and bring a NASA Center of Excellence to the state.

CORE SC — which stands for The Center of Resilience Excellence South Carolina — was founded by Charleston County Government, the South Carolina Aquarium, the College of Charleston, SC Space Grant and SC NASA EPSCoR to make the center a reality. 

CORE SC employees hosted NASA for a three-day statewide tour Sept. 12-14 showcasing the state’s many resources that could support a new space economy.

Board members include chairman Jonathan Zucker, president of The InterTech Group, and Dr. Cassandra Runyon, director of the SC NASA Space Grant Consortium and NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EpSCR). A Center of Excellence is an ancillary NASA operation focused on research to help find solutions to the world’s problems.

The tangible goal is to establish a NASA Center for Excellence at an executive airport — the Johns Island Executive Airport in Charleston County along the Stono River, Aiken Regional Airport or Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport. Ideally, there would be NASA labs at each of those locations.

“We want to have lab space (at an airport) to do things with drones, high-altitude balloons, communication equipment and infrastructure for electric vehicle tools, and to create a satellite program for the state,” said Kevin Limehouse, Innovation Officer for Public Services with Charleston County who also heads CORE SC. “The ask from NASA is for us to do South Carolina’s first CubeSat program, so the lab space and infrastructure at these locations would be for that and all of the tech that comes with it. There’s a real possibility it could be located at one of our airports.”

Yet locations aren’t the only incentives for NASA consideration.

During the multi-day tour, CORE SC highlighted innovative companies operating in the state that could support a new space economy. Parameters for establishing a Center of Excellence include focusing on research and innovation in a specific niche. CORE SC identified five niche areas: Water, Energy, Connectivity, Agriculture and Natural hazards — the acronym “WE CAN.”

NASA officials tour the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. (Photo/Provided)“All five (areas) are relevant to South Carolina, and we would work on solutions to these issues here that we can share with the nation and the world,” Limehouse said. “All five are also all tied to NASA’s mission directorate, and we hope to work on solutions together.”

In that spirit, stops on NASA’s three-day tour included agriculture innovators BrightMa Farms in Cordesville, which uses hemp to create industry-grade manufacturing products, and Heron Farms in Charleston, which grows edible sea beans that desalinate water during the grow process — a product that could be grown in space and nourish astronauts.

Other stops included FabLab in Charleston, which 3-D prints building materials sturdy enough to house a lab, Trident Tech’s Aerospace program facilities and The Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR).

“The crux message is, ‘Here's why South Carolina can be leaders in the new space economy with all that we have going on,’” Limehouse said. “There are opportunities for these businesses to connect (with NASA) and get federal contracts.”

NASA's criteria for creating an official Center of Excellence is that an organization like CORE SC would set up the center first and, once NASA observes its success, the space agency would take over.

“We have to establish the center on our own, start working with NASA on projects with some formalized agreements, and, if everything goes well, it would get absorbed and become a part of NASA,” Limehouse said. “We talked to a Center of Excellence in Texas, and that was their process as well.”

NASA and Beyond

A Center of Excellence first landed on the state's radar five years ago, when the space agency asked to hold a business expo related to the building of its space launch system rocket, said Limehouse.

“We started working with the Marshall Space Flight Center to host a huge business expo and also STEM expo with astronaut visits to our schools, and we just really hit it off,” Limehouse said. NASA came back in force with more than Marshall when the state hosted a NASA regional Conference in 2021.

Through that relationship, stakeholders discovered that NASA was interested in opening additional Centers of Excellence. That's when CORE SC was created along with its unique Center of Excellence model.

The work CORE SC is doing to highlight advancements in its five identified niches is already spurring innovation opportunities beyond NASA — most notably, the Rolls Royce manufacturing facility in Aiken, which is pioneering microgrids for renewable solar energy to power its headquarters and operations.

Limehouse told NASA employees during the recent tour that CORE SC’s interest in that technology led to discussions with Rolls Royce leadership about future projects and partnerships in the new space economy.

“Rolls Royce in Germany asked for a call and said, ‘Would CORE SC be interested in partnering on EVTOLs?’, which are electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles — flying cars — and of course, we said yes,” Limehouse said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where can we do that?’ The ask of NASA by CORE SC is to develop NASA’s first South Carolina satellite program in the state and when Rolls Royce asked about EVTOLs, we thought we could tie those two together at the Johns Island airport.”

Barzan Aeronautical, which develops aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, is currently building a drone facility at the Johns Island airport; all those endeavors could work together and collaborate on innovation, Limehouse said.

“Satellite programs, 3-D printing, industrial agriculture products that can be grown on the moon or Mars — all of this happens if we do it together,” Limehouse said. “My idea is everything together: a Rolls Royce microgrid to power everything with renewables, a 3-D printed structure that houses a lab for communications equipment and lab space and a 3-D printed buildout infrastructure for EVTOLs and drones.”

CORE SC is awarding $400,000 in state-funded subgrants for projects that move the five niche industries forward in South Carolina.
“It could be focused on solutions in electric vehicle charging for a small rural community, flood map work or anything related to technology transfers that transform inventions and scientific outcomes,” Limehouse said. “The end goal is that we want solutions in the hands of our citizens to improve their quality of life.”

CORE SC holds weekly project team meetings, biweekly meetings with NASA and monthly meetings with stakeholders and partners to share ideas.

Showcasing STEM

CORE SC previously hosted NASA employees at week-long STEM fair to show how students are learning skills for future space economy careers, and a previous CORE SC project included securing grant funding for students to learn at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We are talking with NASA about holding another business and STEM expo in 2023 with smaller events leading up to it, like small and minority businesses having an opportunity to connect about their role in NASA (projects),” Limehouse said.

That includes bringing higher education institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the table.

“The CORE SC model is to show NASA all the partners that we work with on a regular basis,” Limehouse said.

Any business involved in these industries is encouraged to reach out to CORE SC about their work.

“We want to show NASA and other federal partners why bringing in all sectors to work together creates a more sustainable model,” Limehouse said.
While Limehouse notes that a NASA Center of Excellence is several years down the line, he said it’s important for South Carolina to get a leg up and create innovation in this burgeoning industry.

“This is going to be a slow burn,” Limehouse said. “Federal agreements take a long time, but all of our efforts go towards creating solutions for our citizens, economic development for our state and a chance to do more with NASA. Hopefully one day, they will have a permanent presence here.”

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