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How NASA recruits astronauts: lessons for building your startup team

December 14, 2015

We stand at a pivotal moment in space exploration. Humankind is making plans to further extend
its reach into the solar system, and NASA is leading the way.

Their orbiting outpost, the International Space Station (ISS), is home to a crew of astronauts from across the world conducting research
and learning how to live and work in space. Their robotic explorers probe diverse regions of the solar system, and they are preparing for a challenging
mission to capture and redirect an asteroid for human
exploration.

All of this is a stepping-stone to future human exploration of
Mars, and as part of this, we are also witnessing the birth of a new commercial space industry, with two tech entrepreneurs getting involved – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s startup, Blue Origin, is a JV with Boeing building a space taxi, to deliver astronauts for NASA to the ISS. There is a budding rivalry with Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies – SpaceX. Both men have been moving aggressively to stake claims in manned exploration and new rocket engines. SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

NASA’s long-term goal is to send humans to Mars. Over the next two decades, they will develop and demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed to send humans to explore the red plane. So it’s against this backdrop that as of today, 14 December, NASA is accepting applications for the position of astronaut.

This is very poignant to me, just 34 years too late for my ideal career. Accountant, Actuary and Astronaut were the three career choices my Careers Officer at school suggested – she was a bit lazy when reading the ‘A to Z of Careers’ book. Well, I say suggested, she gave me the book and I didn’t get beyond ‘A’ and convinced her there was an entry for ‘Astronaut’. Only 536 people have been to space, only twelve have walked on the moon. I feel I’ve missed out.

The Apollo space programme has always resonated with me, I was there. I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the black & white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year.

So if you’ve always dreamed of being an astronaut, you’re in luck – NASA is recruiting. Think you have the right stuff to be an astronaut? What are the requirements to apply?

Those interested in applying must be US citizens and have a degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics. They must also have three years of professional experience or 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Candidates must also pass the long-duration spaceflight physical.

There are also specific physical attributes in the job specification, for example distant visual acuity: 20/100 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20, each eye; Blood pressure 140/90 measured in a sitting position; height between 62 and 75 inches.

NASA will accept applications from 14 December 2015 to February 2016. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you can apply for the job online. The starting salary is $65k, rising to $100k with experience. There will be lots of travel away from home, all expenses paid travel, with overnight allowances.

NASA recruits on a timeline based on a future launch programme, and it’s a 22-month recruitment process was announced in November, and applications close February 2016. These will be reviewed and assessed by September 2016, with informal interviews in December 2016.

Thereafter, medicals and orientations take place (April 2017), short list confirmed (May 2017), and further interviews undertaken until the astronaut class of 2017 is announced June 2017, and they start August 2017. They may get into space between 2019 to 2022.

Whilst professional background, qualifications and physical attributes are important, perhaps it’s surprising to learn that the most extensive evaluation and analysis in the process is of candidates’ soft skill sets, in a framework developed by Charles Pellerin, called ‘4-D’, based around four dimensions, with intuitive and sensory skills on one axis, and logic and emotional the other. This is given a 40% weighting of candidate fit and suitability to the role.

In the 4-D framework, Pellerin developed a 2×2 matrix:

  • Emotional & Intuitive skills: authentic to others, shows mutual respect; respects shared interests; energises collaboration – categorised as ‘Green’ people;
  • Emotional & Sensory skills: authentic and aligned, includes others, keeps to their agreements, high trustworthiness – ‘Yellow’ people;
  • Logical & Intuitive skills: 100% committed and a strong, ‘in the moment’ thinker; expresses reality based optimism, sustained and effective creativity – ‘Blue’ People;
  • Logical & Sensory skills: shows clear accountability and authority in the role for achievable expectations; resists blaming others, is outcome focused – ‘Orange’ people.

The astronaut cohort are thus recruited against these attributes and traits to provide a balance of ‘people types’, as well as their functional expertise – people, teams, ideas and systems are the four key dimensions:

  • ‘Greens’ are people builders, care deeply about people and create strong loyalty. Their roles are training, coaching and leading complex teams, cultivating people and their needs;
  • ‘Yellows’ are team builders, seeking harmonious teams and work with difficult and complex situation to unite them. They lead large, complex teams and create trustworthy relationships;
  • ‘Blues’ are idea builders, fonts of creative ideas, demand innovation, and typically have roles in research and early stage projects, visioning the best possible;
  • ‘Oranges’ are systems builders, disciplined, focused on control and process, skills for managing late phase projects, directing and organising people.

In many ways launching a new business parallels launching a space mission. There’s so much that can go wrong and there’s always the chance that the start-up could fail. According to Bloomberg, 80% of new businesses do fail. In the early days of shuttle launches, the risk of having a catastrophic event – that is, death – was 1 in 9. According to an astronaut saying, There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, which is a positive mindset to take into your startup.

Astronauts are trained to be expert pilots, but it is their soft skills ability to perform while living on the edge, and knack for succeeding in doing what others say is impossible, which NASA see as what truly sets them apart.

Successful entrepreneurs possess many of these same character traits.  They devote themselves to their business goals and work tirelessly to achieve the necessary momentum to launch their new business.  Launching rockets and new businesses require great skill to guide the projects into an unknown realm. Close examination of human space exploration may provide strategies to help make a new business ‘take off and stay in orbit’.

Successful entrepreneurs are focused on the speed at which they launch their business. They recognise that success comes with patience and hard work too.

The astronaut’s story of sheer persistence, tenacity and of taking pleasure in the journey speaks to anyone who goes into a business for the sake of purpose. The description of the preparation for the launch, the excitement around the possibility of being in space and then awe in being weightless is a great metaphor for building a business and realising a dream, zeroing in on what’s important. Their combination of vision, conviction, and stubborn tenacity make them unstoppable visionaries.

So, think like an astronaut, look to the future, and adopt this state of mind. Think about what the future is going to be and how you can help create it. Just like an astronaut, work on things no one else is working on and be willing to take risks to make discoveries. It’s clear that high soaring embody many of the traits that epitomise high soaring entrepreneurs. One thing for sure, neither is a journey for the meek and timid.

Talent makes capital dance is a phrase I’ve coined to recognise the pivotal importance of talent in a start up, and the people-teams-ideas-systems theme from Pellerin is a useful framework to consider when thinking about your startup team. So what insights can we take from NASA for building breakthrough startup teams? What can entrepreneurs learn from astronauts?

  • Define the importance of human capital in your startup business model
  • Create a long-term road map for talent acquisition and development
  • Remember, you are curating a team for the future, not recruiting individuals for today
  • Don’t treat hiring staff as an admin process, recognise the strategic business value of talent acquisition
  • Have a high regard for soft kills – emotional, logical, intuition and sensory
  • Recruit people who show a desire for learning, who are curious for knowledge curation and development
  • Recruit on attitude, potential and aptitude – skills can be developed by training
  • Ensure there is a cultural fit, everyone is team oriented
  • Appreciate the scarcity of the right talent for your business model, but don’t compromise
  • Understand it is an investment, not a cost
  • Recall NASA’s view – missions fail because we have the wrong people, not the wrong technology – make your startup people centric, not product centric

One perspective is to have a hipster, a hacker, and a hustler on your founding team. Dave McLure has described this combination as the minimum viable team, where he sees attitude and mindset as the key enablers of startup success.

The first couple of months for a startup are a bit like the big bang at the beginning of a rocket from its Launchpad. Lots of key decisions with far reaching consequences get made in a short period of time so at this stage it’s important that the team is both supporting and challenging, stressing the importance of strong characters who can work together.

Everyone in the founding team should test and probe thinking, operate as a sounding board to each other, helping with the emotional challenges of startup life, responding positively to pressure when things don’t go to plan. Certain people thrive in a startup atmosphere, while the unpredictability can drive others crazy. Finding the right blend of ingredients in the perfect startup team isn’t easy.

An individual, who when strapped to a 4.4 million pound bomb being propelled at 7,500 mph from the launch pad, with the responsibility of billions of pounds worth of equipment and years of peoples’ dedicated time on their shoulders, still manages to keep their heartbeat in the 70-90 beats per minute range – the same beat range us mere mortals experience during a brisk walk to the local shop for a pint of milk – that’s when you need an astronaut in your startup. It’s not rocket science, it’s people science.

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