Interview with Brian Shiro (CEO of Astronauts4Hire)

Brian Shiro is the Chief Executive Officer of Astronauts4Hire

In this post I have the pleasure of letting someone else do the writing for a change. That person is Brian Shiro and he is the Chief Executive Officer of Astronauts4Hire (A4H). Their official press release footer reads as follows:
Astronauts for Hire, Inc. (A4H) is a  501(c)(3) non-profit corporation whose objectives are to provide opportunities for students and professionals to develop and refine the skills necessary to become commercial astronauts and to assist these qualified candidates with networking opportunities in the space research community. A4H’s commercial astronaut candidates are accomplished scientists and engineers who can support a wide variety of payloads. They are available today for contract and consulting work with researchers to design and conduct experiments on microgravity, suborbital, and orbital missions.
Brian kindly agreed to answer some questions about what it is A4H does, and what his plans are for the future of the company.
1. Do you agree that commercial space companies like Astronauts4Hire are the future of suborbital space transportation and research?
Brian Shiro: I think that the suborbital spaceflight industry will be dominated by commercial companies operating spacecraft for a variety of clients, both private and public.  While tourism is driving much of this development so far, there is only a finite number of people wealthy enough to afford a 5-minute joyride in space.  Once that population of clients has run its course, what will sustain the suborbital spaceflight industry?  Either prices must fall dramatically, or another type of client needs to emerge.  I think researchers are that other type of customer.  Unlike tourists who may only go on one flight, scientists can repeatedly apply for research funding from agencies like the NSF, NASA, or NIH to have their experiments fly in space.  Tourism will never go away, but I think research will eventually dominate the landscape of suborbital flights.  Consider the analogy of Antarctica.  Like space, it is a harsh, remote environment that is expensive to reach.  While some tourists do indeed venture there at great personal expense, almost everyone who goes to Antarctica is a scientist or supports the science activities in some way, I believe that is the fate of the suborbital realm in the foreseeable future.
2. What projects are Astronauts4Hire currently involved in?
Brian: Our most important focus is on building the organization.  At almost 1.5 years old, we are still very young and are evolving rapidly.  Fortunately, we are out front leading the way as this new frontier emerges.  To prepare our members for the rigors of spaceflight and the demands of doing research there, we have developed a comprehensive medical and training qualification program in consultation with expert advisors.  We’re currently working on getting this published so it can get input from the wider community.  Another project has been helping the Commercial Spaceflight Federation recruit Research & Education Affiliate members, which is the status A4H holds in that organization as well.  In collaboration with some of our training and research partners we are working on joint projects ranging from human physiology to developing high fidelity astronaut training courses.  Look for exciting announcements about those projects in the coming months.
3. What are your plans for the future development of Astronauts4Hire?
Brian: Five years from now, I expect A4H to be well established as an authority setting commercial astronaut training standards and as a primary resource to the research community to reliably fly its experiments in space and/or test them on parabolic flights.  Hopefully, we will have already completed at least one actual suborbital spaceflight by that point.  By ten years, A4H should be regularly operating both suborbital and orbital research missions.  In the decade that follows I expect the demand for non-research astronauts to grow to include other “blue collar” support roles to help maintain and operate private space stations, for example.  A4H is positioning itself to serve all of these markets as an astronaut crew service.  Right now, we’re a volunteer-based organization relying upon virtual collaboration tools, but I would expect us to eventually establish a physical office, full-time staff, and perhaps even our own training facilities to help facilitate our activities.
4. Who can become an Astronaut4Hire?
Brian: Anyone can join the organization as an Associate Member.  As an Associate Member you can optionally get involved with A4H projects to support the organization and train to meet your astronaut goals.  Currently, there are 46 Associate Members in A4H.  The other type of members are Flight Members.  These are the “astronauts for hire” of the organization.  Selection as a Flight Member occurs on a competitive basis about once per year.  There are currently 22 Flight Members.  It is necessary to keep this group relatively small to maintain a high degree of quality control on our “product”, meaning the astronauts we can offer to clients.  Also, we don’t have infinite resources to support the training needs of an unlimited number of people, so we have to keep the Flight Member group selective.  The main difference between Associate and Flight members is that Flight Members have access to training scholarships to help offset the cost of astronaut training and can represent A4H as “astronauts for hire” on research contracts with clients.  Generally speaking, to be competitive as a Flight Member, we’re looking for well established scientists or engineers with a broad background indicating adaptability.  Experience in risky operational environments like piloting aircraft, SCUBA diving, mountaineering, etc. are also important indicators that applicants can think clearly under stress.
5. What training do you provide for your astronauts?
Brian: Our training philosophy is that A4H astronauts should be as prepared as possible for whatever situation they might face.  Unlike spaceflight participants who may only fly in space once and therefore only need minimal training, A4H crew astronauts plan to fly many times over the course of a career.  This multiplies the chances for off-nominal events from occurring.  Thus, our training includes preparing for both the planned mission elements and the unplanned emergency situations.  First is academic training, which includes earning at least a Master’s degree in a technical field and completing short courses on spaceflight, the space environment, and human factors.  The astronaut training includes the following major elements: high-G training in a centrifuge, high-altitude hypoxia training in an altitude chamber, microgravity training on parabolic flights, distraction training, emergency egress training, unusual attitude training in acrobatic aircraft, SCUBA diving, private pilot, and survival.  We have organized these into two qualifications we are calling “Research Specialist” and “Operations Specialist”, which are roughly analogous to NASA’s payload and mission specialists, respectively.  Look for a paper from us on this subject in an upcoming peer-reviewed journal by early next year.
6. How can the public get involved?
Brian: One of our important goals of A4H is to excite and inspire the public about the new era of commercial spaceflight.  Members of the public are encouraged to contribute donations, sign up to receive A4H’s quarterly newsletter, or join as Associate Members.  We are happy to come speak to schools or other events anytime too.
7. Do you foresee any conflicts-of-interest between private sponsors and future space missions?
Brian: One can imagine scenarios where sponsors could try to abuse their influence as major financial contributors to the A4H organization.  For example, it would be a conflict of interest for a donor to expect favoritism in an A4H Flight Member or scholarship selection.  Perhaps more insidious would be the notion that an entity hiring A4H for a job could ask A4H to do something to endanger the flight or people on the ground.  Obviously, we would refuse any such requests.  It is critical that all A4H members conduct themselves with the highest ethical conduct, and the missions we perform for clients must also adhere to strict safety standards.  As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, A4H must primary serve the public interest as it builds the next generation of astronauts in the post-Shuttle era of commercial spaceflight.
8. What advice would you give to someone hoping to become an Astronaut4Hire?
Brian: If we’re right, research applications are what will drive the demand for private spaceflights in the foreseeable future.  Therefore, you must either be an accomplished researcher yourself or be very comfortable working with researchers.  Having an advanced postgraduate degree (Master’s, Ph.D.) in a field of science or engineering will be required to have the necessary background to work in this new industry.  Having experience in a broad set of fields will help you be competitive to operate a wider variety of payloads/experiments.  Earning your private pilot’s license, SCUBA certification, and other similar high-demand pursuits will give you experience working in stressful environments which require strict adherence to procedures in order to remain safe and survive.  Last, but not least, experience in the business and/or nonprofit sector(s) is highly valuable.  We need people with fundraising, marketing, and organizational skills to make A4H work.
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Brian answers more questions about Astronauts4Hire in this interview on the Space Business Blog. He is also on Twitter, you can follow him here. You can also follow his personal blog, astronaut for hire.
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