Monday, December 6, 2010

Interview with the Founder of Astronauts 4Hire

Space Stations by Bigelow & Orbital Technologies. Dragon Lab Missions by SpaceX. And more to come. The hardware is being built. Should Bigelow, and SpaceX pay to maintain an internal astronaut corp to operate their hardware or should they outsource their astronauts?

Would an internal team of astronauts be a cost center or profit center for these hardware manufacturers. 

Enter Astronauts4Hire – a commercial astronaut corp. Buy their services "by the drink". I first talked about A4H here.  Below is my interview with Astronauts4Hire's President/CEO and co-founder, Brian Shiro.

Q: Can you give us a company overview of Astronauts4Hire? The services you intend to offer? The market you are targeting?

Brian Shiro: Astronauts4Hire (A4H) targets both inward and outward-facing markets. We can illustrate this by dissecting our name into two parts: “Astronauts” and “for Hire.” “Astronauts” refers to our internally-focused activities related to building the skills of prospective commercial astronauts with the goal of creating a professional commercial astronaut workforce. The “for Hire” refers to our externally-focused activities to match commercial astronaut candidates with specific missions to be carried out on suborbital or orbital flights. Our target markets include prospective astronauts, researchers, and companies.

Services we offer internally to members focus on the professional development of members as astronaut candidates. This involves fostering communication among astronaut candidates, negotiating special pricing for training courses, and offering scholarships to flight members on a competitive basis to help pay for their astronaut training. Plus, members can gain entrepreneurial skills by getting involved on the ground floor with building the organization during this early phase of our development.

A4H offers a number of services to the external community too. A4H will work with researchers and companies to provide the manpower required to achieve mission objectives on parabolic, suborbital, and orbital flights. Primarily, the services pertain to planning and executing experiments or operating payloads on flights. It could also involve product testing or promotion, particularly for commercial clients, as is the case with the upcoming space beer flight.

Q: Describe Astronauts4Hire’s latest contract to test beer in microgravity?

Brian Shiro: A new space engineering company, Saber Astronautics Australia, teamed up with the 4-Pines Brewery in a joint venture called Vostok Pty. Ltd. to create beer brewed specifically for consumption in space. This stout-derived beer has low carbonation and high flavor, meeting known challenges the human body faces with taste and carbonation in microgravity. Initial batch recipes were taste-tested by 4-Pines and were proven safe for wholesale consumption through terrestrial sales, which will help fund the microgravity beer testing experiment. Drop tower tests conducted at the Queensland University of Technology characterized the liquid under brief, but high quality, microgravity conditions.

After considering many internal and external service providers, the Vostok partners chose Astronauts4Hire (A4H) to carry out the flight experiment. A4H selected its top four members with past microgravity research experience, and Vostok then interviewed them before settling on a primary and backup A4H research participant to carry out the experiment.

A4H is contracted to provide general support to the first human research experiment on alcohol absorption in microgravity. A4H’s primary purpose is to provide the human test subject (research participant), who has a myriad of tasks to handle before and during the flight. This includes experiment setup, pre-flight testing, data collection, and serving as a critical liaison with the ZERO G Corporation, the company that will provide the parabolic flight service. In this sense, A4H has been the team “on the ground” in the USA to support the experiment.

Vostok and A4H also collaborate on press releases and other publicity matters. We worked together with the ZERO G Corporation to negotiate many logistics details for the research flight. For example, when the original November flight was cancelled by ZERO G, Vostok and A4H worked with ZERO G to establish a new flight date in December.

The experiment itself will consist of a baseline sampling of the beer two days prior to the flight in which measurements of body temperature, heart rate, and blood alcohol content will be taken. Qualitative information such as the beer’s taste and overall drinkability will also be recorded. These same parameters will be recorded during the flight sampling. During the ZERO G flight, the A4H flight researcher will consume the beer during alternating 0-g parabolic portions of the flight.

Vostok’s ultimate goal is to be the prime supplier of beer to space tourism operators and hopes that the tests carried out by A4H will lead to the establishment of standards for the responsible, casual consumption of alcohol in space.

Q: Why did you choose to start Astronauts4Hire as a non-profit?

Brian Shiro: We arrived at the decision to become a non-profit through careful consideration of business modality alternatives. Being a non-profit fits best with our near- and intermediate-term goals of establishing A4H as the main aggregator of commercial astronaut sector stakeholders: crews, trainers, vehicles, mission elements, etc.

Like a professional organization, A4H aids its members in their professional development as astronauts through structuring of a training program, negotiation of special training prices, and awarding scholarships to members to help pay for their astronaut training. A4H is also helping establish the industry standards by which commercial astronauts will be measured. A4H will fund these activities primarily through a combination of donations, sponsorships, and grants.

Another important source of revenue for A4H includes its contracts with researchers to perform experiments on microgravity flights. This is important because it allows A4H to build experience and a customer base without having to wait until suborbital space vehicles are operational. Not only does it help us get our feet wet with providing payload operation services, it also gives our members further experience to make them more competitive astronaut candidates by the time suborbital space vehicles are ready.

If A4H were a for-profit venture, possibly having to pay back investors, we would have to charge higher prices for our services. This would not only potentially limit our clientele; it could restrict the growth of the emerging commercial astronaut market. Keeping costs low in the beginning is therefore very important, and that’s why the low overhead of a non-profit is the right track for A4H during this phase of its development.

Q: What is your long-term strategy for growing Astronauts4Hire?

Brian Shiro: The near-term plan is to finalize our business plan and federal 501(c)(3) status as a non-profit by early 2011. We will more aggressively pursue fundraising at that time and plan to start raising enough money by mid-2011 to allow us to award our initial A4H astronaut training scholarships. The pattern of raising money primarily by writing grant proposals, soliciting donors, and establishing sponsorships will continue for the next 2-4 years. We have a stepwise strategy to use money raised on a 6-month basis to pay for training activities during each subsequent half year.

In the first few years, A4H will mostly contract out its training to third parties, but by 2014 or so (after we have a few spaceflights under our belts), we plan to ramp up our internal capabilities to train ourselves too. What form this will take remains an open question, but it could include establishing a commercial astronaut training center. We plan to fund this in part by collecting registration fees at workshops, clinics, and symposia hosted by A4H on various topics related to commercial human spaceflight and suborbital research. The scope of these workshops will likely range from an introduction to commercial spaceflight for the general public in a Space Camp style to detailed technical forums for researchers to further the field.

Beyond five years, when the industry is on its feet, we can forsee possible spin-off ventures focusing on different aspects of the commercial astronaut workforce. What we know as A4H today could become more like an educational foundation, and other related businesses could handle the operational aspects of training and flight services.

Our ultimate goal is to be the main organization that provides astronaut skills training and ratings to help individuals find flight opportunities on suborbital and orbital platforms and to serve the crew needs of the commercial human spaceflight industry.

Q: What capital requirements does Astronauts4Hire have to execute your growth plan?

Brian Shiro: Our biggest assets now are our members’ time and skills, as well as the publicity we are enjoying. Capital investment so far has been light, but we have forecasted our growth requirements for the next five years. For example, we are targeting a total operating budget of approximately $81,000 in 2011 that will grow to $300,000 in 2013.

A4H needs about $150,000 in 2011 to meet its training targets, $250,000 in 2012, increasing up to just over $600,000 by 2015. On the cost side, this assumes a growth rate of 10 new flight members per year, which influences the cost of training required. On the revenue side, our forecast assumes we add at least 1-2 new “Martian” and “Lunar” donors at the $10,000 and higher level per year and earn at least one additional grant at the $50,000 level or higher per year. We also assume to add future zero gravity flight contracts like the beer flight at a rate of 3 in 2011, 5 in 2012, and so forth.

Q: What are ways the new space industry can take advantage of Astronauts4Hire’s services that they may not be thinking about or be aware of?

Brian Shiro: The space community talks a lot about “commercial crews” these days, but when most people say that, they are referring to the vehicles and engineering systems that will get people to space, not the crews themselves. Astronauts4Hire aims to fill that void by providing a professional astronaut crew service with qualified astronauts who can assume a myriad of duties on space missions.

Individuals interested in going through a structured astronaut training program can apply with Astronauts4Hire to take advantage of our relationships with training providers and connections to potential employers who may hire them later.

In the near term, we can work with researchers or companies who want to fly experiments aboard microgravity parabolic flights. Once suborbital and later orbital space vehicles are flying, we can do the same on those platforms. A4H members can serve a “guinea pigs” for flight hardware and medical testing to help establish the qualification of commercial spacecraft for human flight too. Eventually, A4H could become a prime supplier of crews to operate and maintain commercial space stations in orbit.

Q: What recommendations do you have for space entrepreneurs considering starting their own business?

Brian Shiro: Just like in real estate, what matters most is “location, location, location.” Try to be in the right place at the right time and foster a network of contacts that can help springboard your venture to success. Never underestimate the amount of time it will take to do something. If you think it’ll take a month, multiply it by 10, and you might be closer to the mark. However, that doesn’t mean the pace of progress is slow, as sometimes it can feel like you’re barely keeping your head above water just to stay afloat. Keep your eyes on the prize to maintain motivation and try to remind those working with you of the broader goals from time to time to keep up group morale. Surround yourself with a mix of “true believers” and skeptics to ensure you get a healthy mix of inspiration and grounding. For virtual organizations with members spread out geographically, as we are in A4H, leveraging modern communications technology is a key advantage, but one must be careful to ensure the tools foster efficiency rather than implementing too formal a process that could burden the pace of growth. Above all else, have fun, work hard, and you are sure to succeed!

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