Brian Shiro is CEO and cofounder of Astronauts for Hire, also known as Astronauts4Hire (A4H), a 501(c)(3) non-profit formed to recruit and train the next generation of commercial astronauts. With private companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace working on their own suborbital spacecraft, A4H aims to recruit qualified scientists and engineers and turn them into highly-trained commercial astronauts for hire. Let’s take a look at what Brian had to say about A4H and how they are training the next generation of commercial astronauts.
Brian holds a MS in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, an MA in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Washington University in St. Louis, and BA degrees from Northwestern University in the fields of Integrated Science, Geological Sciences, and Physics. He also has a graduate certificate of Space Studies from the International Space University and he made it to the “Highly Qualified” stage of NASA’s astronaut selection process.
Founding of A4H
A4H started to come together in February 2010 at the first Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Boulder, Colorado. The conference covered the promise for scientific missions of suborbital vehicles and how over time they would become the main driving force of the market for space exploration. Brian Shiro, Veronica Ann Zabala-Aliberto, Amnon Govrin and Ryan Kobrick were inspired by the conference and formulated the initial A4H concept bringing Joseph Palaia in to help further expand their ideas into what would eventually become A4H. The five co-founders approached NASTAR who fully supported the idea and offered full scheduling flexibility for training to the group if they could get at least 10 people interested. The co-founders reached out to close colleagues with proven professional and scientific backgrounds relevant to space exploration to join the team before reaching the benchmark and officially launching the organization and website on April 12, 2010.
A4H Flight Members and Associate Members
A4H is a volunteer based membership organization that consists of 19 Flight Members and a growing number of Associate Members. Flight Members are essentially astronaut candidates rigorously screened through a competitive selection process. Flight Members are leaders in their fields and represent a wide range of engineering, life and physical sciences disciplines.The number of Flight Members is kept small for quality control to allow A4H to offer the best astronauts to their clients. The Associate members make up the bulk of the organization and the largest area of growth. There is no screening process involved and it presents a way for people who want to get involved with the network and train to become an astronaut. While Flight Members receive a slight preference for training opportunities, the same training discounts apply to Associate Members allowing everyone to train to become an astronaut. The Associate Member group is diverse, ranging from people who don’t necessarily want to fly but are strong supporters of the organization, to highly qualified former NASA astronaut interviewees who are experts in their field and are in pursuit of their dream to fly. Growing at a steady rate of 1 person per week, A4H as a whole has over 120 people from 17 different countries signed up and that number is steadily increasing. Almost everyone is a PhD or senior level expert in science or engineering.
Opportunities for Space Flight around the Corner
The commercial space industry is on the rise, and Brian fully intends for A4H to “ride that wave out front
,” from his base of operations in Ewa Beach, Oahu. A4H members are encouraged to use the network to make their own opportunities and partnerships. Dr. Jason Reimueller was recently selected to fly for his PoSSUM(Polar Observing Orbital Science in the Mesosphere) project. His project was initially accepted through NASA but has now grown to include X Core and a number of other partners around the world. He was able to use his contacts at A4H to help pull his proposal off the ground and will now be flying in the near future. The other method A4H hopes to help with in the future is providing astronauts for scientists who don’t want to fly or cannot pass the medical restrictions. A4H would hire out astronauts who have the specific skills needed for the job. There are no real flight priorities within the Flight Members except for the flight number within a given category. Instead the unique skill-sets of individual Flight Members will be matched for the job. For example, if the experiment is medical in nature, the physician or biomedical engineer who has the most relevant experience or skills will be offered to the client. If a particular task does not fall within the scope of the skills of the Flight Members it passes on to the Associate Members.
How does Astronauts for Hire handle Contracts?
Brian notes that Astronauts for Hire is a nonprofit organization that is here to connect professionals, make things happen and advance science in the industry. A4H works as a facilitator helping to match professionals with employers. Aside from a small administrative fee for brokering the deal, the majority of the money goes to the individual astronaut. There is of course nothing stopping an astronaut from turning around and donating some of their pay to A4H, which has happened in one case and is always welcome.
How does A4H handle Foreign Astronauts
International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) may make it difficult to send foreign astronauts into space from American soil. However one way A4H plans to circumvent these regulations is to have international members fly from international spaceports. In addition to existing international spaceports, there are plans for spaceports in many more countries like Sweden and Dubai and by having members physically located in these areas, when experiments start launching from these spaceports it will be easier to get them approved for space flight. When using a U.S. spaceport or payload there may be restrictions to U.S. citizens and that is a possibility that the organization is aware of; in these cases working within the laws on a case by case basis is the only approach.
What does it Cost to become an Associate?
Associate member dues are $40.00 per year. The student or need base rate to become an associate is $25 per year. There is also a lifetime membership option available for a onetime payment $250.00. The average age of their members is in the early to mid-thirties, while the Flight Members are in their late forties. There are no age restrictions and A4H already has its first teenage member. They have plans to penetrate high schools where they can really tap into the next generation of commercial astronauts. That said there is an age requirement for actual flight which varies depending on the vehicle manufacturer. The general rule of thumb at A4H is at least 18 years to fly at all.
A4H has developed agreements and partnerships with a few training providers like the Navstar center in Pennsylvania, Survival Systems USA (SSUSA) and SIRIUS Astronaut Training in Massachusetts. Training includes an academic phase in which candidates learn the various technical disciplines relevant to a commercial astronaut. Spaceflight engineering, aerodynamics, propulsion, orbital mechanics and microgravity are just some of the fields astronauts in training need for their careers. Some of the physical training astronaut candidates will have to go through includes underwater egress training, survival training, adaptation to motion sickness, exposure to G forces, spatial orientation and motor control in disorienting environments. Trainees are taught to work under extreme pressures and time constraints and how to deal with stress and ignore distractions.
NASA’s Level of Involvement
While talks of an agreement with NASA are ongoing, NASA’s current relationship with A4H is entirely informal. A4H’s Senior Technical Advisory Council (STAC) consists of former NASA astronaut trainer Ken Trujillo, former Lockheed Martin Corporate Astronaut Dr. Leslie Wickman and training analysis consultant Lee Wooldridge. These former astronauts, instructors and government liaisons have proved instrumental in helping Brian set up A4H. Many of the members within the organization are also NASA employees. The reason the NASA astronauts became part of STAC rather than Flight Members was that they felt it would be unfair to everyone else in the program. If actual astronauts were among the Flight Members there would be no incentive for private businesses to take a chance on hiring anyone else.
Avoiding an Oversupply of Astronauts
Brian acknowledges that there’s always more astronauts available for flight than there are flight missions. Indeed most of NASA’s astronaut core has never experienced space flight in the traditional sense. A4H had to be conservative to a degree that they “don’t just let the floodgates open
.” While there is probably enough interest to allow a few hundred flights each week if they let people, there isn't enough of a market for the skill-set yet and it wouldn't make sense to have hundreds of people ready for flights that haven’t even been planned yet. This is why they created two membership categories. It serves as a release valve for public demand for space flight, while A4H assesses the actual frequency of flight opportunities. The Associate Membership allows those in the public who are really interested in flying to get the training and plan their careers so that they are ready when an opportunity arises. There are going to be flight ready members who never get to fly, but that’s just “the nature of any career and not only astronauts
.” It all boils down to the right timing, the right project and the skills of the individual.
Long Term Vision
With the rise of companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic, A4H anticipates a need for blue-collar astronaut workers who can perform jobs from orbital platforms. In the future Brian predicts that while NASA is exploring the Mars and beyond, private companies will perform janitorial and maintenance duties on space stations and other orbital platforms. Improving the ability to cheaply enter and exit Earth’s orbit is the current priority and there will be plenty of opportunities in the near future to test new equipment.