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S.A.’s space architect: hometown roots, out-of-this-world ideas

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San Antonio’s space architect wants to make the city a space construction hub — and that’s just one of Sam Ximenes’ ideas.

From moon bases to space stations, the San Antonio native is at work designing the next chapter of space exploration. When he’s not doing that, he’s helping young people get interested in space, science and technology.

His latest creation? A space station that looks like something out of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” On a recent afternoon, he was in his company’s sparse conference room at the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology reviewing renderings of a circular spacecraft with sleek spires.

He calls it a Celestial Aligning Bernal Sphere, and images of the craft set against spacescapes look like frameable art.

It’s the latest design by a San Antonian who’s always working on the next idea.

Ximenes is founder and chief executive of space architecture firm Exploration Architecture, or XArc, as well as a space construction company called Astroport. He’s also founder and board chair of the WEX Foundation, an entity focused on space education for middle and high schoolers.

“There are a million architects in this world, and I think there’s probably only enough space architects you can count on two hands,” said David Monroe, founding chair of the museum. “He’s just a really, really unique person, because he thinks in another dimension than most of us do.”

With roots on the city’s South Side and in Floresville, his family heritage is grounded in agriculture, service, social justice and civil rights. His ancestors have served as Floresville sheriff, helped clear the way for Hemisfair Park and ran a South Side restaurant.

His uncle Vincente, a World War II Army Air Corps veteran, became a civil rights activist and leader with the American GI Forum — a Hispanic veterans and civil rights organization. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as the third commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Exploration Architecture Corporation founder and CEO Sam Ximenes holds a jar of fine basalt powder Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in his Port San Antonio lab. XArc received a $50 million NASA small business grant to evaluate lunar landing pad construction using technology to melt moon soil, which contains a large amount of basalt, to build landing pads for spacecraft.

Exploration Architecture Corporation founder and CEO Sam Ximenes holds a jar of fine basalt powder Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in his Port San Antonio lab. XArc received a $50 million NASA small business grant to evaluate lunar landing pad construction using technology to melt moon soil, which contains a large amount of basalt, to build landing pads for spacecraft.

William Luther, Staff / William Luther

Another uncle, Edward, was a doctor who also served in World War II. Texas Gov. John Connally appointed him to the University of Texas Board of Regents in 1967. He was the first Hispanic appointed to the position and helped bring the UT system to San Antonio. Today, a street and parking lot at the University of Texas at San Antonio bear his name.

There’s also his aunt, who helped introduce bilingual education in the area, and another uncle who worked as a contractor at Kelly. Ximenes’ father, Waldo, was an Air Force judge advocate who became a federal judge.

“There’s a lot of background in terms of my roots to their education and the things they’re doing and the civil rights movement,” Ximenes said.

One of five siblings, he was born at Fort Sam Houston. His father’s service kept the family on the move — Laredo, California, Spain, Germany and the Philippines.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way because it taught me how to adapt quickly, how to make friends quickly, how to leave friends quickly and how to know that you still have friends around the world,” he said. “And the ability to understand other cultures and other viewpoints — it’s been a tremendous learning experience.”

Growing up as a self-described bookworm, he became interested in technology by way of James Bond books and movies.

“My brothers would go out to the ranch and I’d stay back because I wanted to read my books,” he said.

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Ximenes graduated high school in the Philippines and returned to Texas to study architecture at Texas A&M.

“Since middle school, I always wanted to be an architect,” he said. “I thought I wanted to do it because I wanted to build my own house — which I haven’t done.”

His path to being a space architect wasn’t direct or smooth.

After college, Ximenes spent time in Lake Tahoe, working first with a hot air balloon company and then for the city, overseeing art installations in public buildings. Four years later, he got restless and took off in his Datsun 240Z.

He spent two years in Cuernavaca, Mexico, working in a women’s shoe factory. His job was to turn scraps into a product. “So, I designed a line of toys for them,” he said.

Next, he found himself designing street furniture in Hamburg, Germany, in the early ’80s. In those pre-Internet days, he was intrigued by a video advertising kiosk he saw at a train station.

“It just struck me that video’s the next thing so I went and contacted that company,” he said. “And I convinced them to let me go to America and try and sell this concept.”

Artist rendering of a Celestially Aligning Bernal Sphere

Artist rendering of a Celestially Aligning Bernal Sphere

“Concept: XArc / WHD; Illustrations: Will Hosikian”

The idea brought him back to San Antonio, where he incorporated his first company — Video Point Corp. of America.

“We ended up getting a contract with the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984 to set up these kiosks,” he said. “Wayfinding kiosks.”

The deal could’ve changed the trajectory of his life, but few attended the fair and his company went bankrupt.

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“That was my first my first business failure, but you learn from failure,” he said.

Hoping to return to architecture, he wrote a paper about how humans could be oriented aboard space stations. A journal published it and the success deepened his interest in the infrastructure of space.

Ximenes found some professors were starting a space architecture program at the University of Houston. It was the precursor to the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture, or SICSA.

“There were three of us in the first official space architecture class,” he said.

After earning his master’s degree he worked at several companies, first designing lunar bases and then interiors of the International Space Station.

As a concept designer — a specialty that’s more art than math — Ximenes relies on engineers take his concepts from art to reality.

“They turn it into something that actually works,” he said.

Larry Toups, who retired from NASA and now is an adjunct professor at SICSA, has known Ximenes since they both studied at the University of Houston.

“He has a vision of how you can look to the future, and how you solve some of the engineering and technical challenges required for going to places such as the moon or Mars,” said Toups, who also serves as an advisor for Astroport.

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