Reaching for the stars

Sending humans to Mars, setting up off-world colonies and exploring asteroids may sound like science fiction, but they are in fact short-term commercial realities, requiring proper corporate structures, management teams and business plans. E&T explains how the 'NewSpace' companies of tomorrow are working today.

It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but both NASA and private space companies are seriously discussing long-term off-world habitation. Under the current 'Vision for Space Exploration', NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon and then move on to the next challenge: Mars.

4Frontiers is a new company preparing for this challenge, developing strategies and technologies to be used in creating a permanent human presence on the red planet.

While humans may not set foot on Mars for at least another decade, informative entertainment, Earth-based technology development and consultancy are the three business strategies that this company can master today. Efforts in these areas will lay the foundation needed to pursue their ultimate objective. Start-up companies, pay attention. This could be a valuable lesson for your new business and management projects.

Conquering newer frontiers

In July 2005, 4Frontiers Corporation was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the intention of extending man's reach to a new frontier, to establish the first human settlement on Mars. Since that time, the company's business, entertainment, and consultancy teams have made strides in more than just the technical realm. Although primarily focused on the settlement of Mars, the company is named after and recognises the economic potential of other near-term space frontiers - Earth orbit, the Moon, and asteroids. 

Since its inception, the managerial, technical, consultant, advisor and even intern teams of 4Frontiers have managed to take many strides to make this project work. 4Frontiers' primary business strategy is the development of technologies and systems critical for Mars settlement while generating revenue through Earth-based enterprise to support that goal. 

"Within the first year, we got far enough along to realise that it was feasible to have self-sustaining settlements on a different world," says Mark Homnick, president and founder of 4Frontiers. "Beyond theory, it was practically possible to do such a thing." If this 'NewSpace' company has anything to do with it, Martian settlement may not be the stuff of science fiction anymore.

NewSpace investment

NewSpace is the term for emerging industries consisting of entrepreneurial private companies investing in the activities, resources, and economic potential of outer space. Now, these organisations are able to actively participate in efforts to expand human activities in space. Such activities include the development of cost-efficient launch vehicles, lunar landing technologies, space tourism flights and hotels, and a variety of other space-related technologies. Current booming NewSpace companies include Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace.

Homnick predicts "the next wave is space tourism". In fact, the gross domestic product (GDP) for the world's commercial space related activity has been expanding at 16 per cent per year over the last decade. This growth is occurring in a current global space market that exceeds $250bn yearly. 

4Frontiers recognises that the pursuit of interesting technology alone is insufficient to permit the company to accomplish its goals. What is essential is the development of profitable business endeavours relating to the end goal. Peter Collins, a 4Frontiers environmental chemistry intern, states this well: "It is not just technical skills that will get us to Mars, but business skills also. Projects need to be managed, funding obtained, and profits made along the way."

One major aspect of 4Frontiers' business strategy is to engage the public through informative entertainment, sharing its vision and its latest innovations while translating public interest into revenue-based support of the company's research and business operations.

Along these lines, the company has been developing a number of unique ventures. 4Frontiers knows that educating and exciting today's youth will help to inspire tomorrow's pioneers. Fictional stories about the first family on Mars have been included in an interactive children's website, [new window]. Education curriculum packages have been developed, presenting space and science through the theme of Mars exploration. The use of new media and other innovative technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook, are being employed by the company to engage the public in 4Frontiers' efforts, too.

There are even plans for a television reality show where groups of individuals contend to establish a self-sustaining colony, as if they were early Mars settlers. They will race to complete various tasks, gaining extended sleep hours, extra oxygen tanks, and additional fuel for their rovers along the way, to name just a few prizes, if they are the first team to successfully accomplish them.

Educational tour packages have also been created for groups interested in space and US culture, providing the opportunity to go on exclusive trips to space and science centres throughout out the United States. The tours that 4Frontiers offers are customisable for international and domestic groups, complete with all travel and lodging arrangements, and even a pre-paid cell phone. The travel packages allow groups to visit the places where American spaceflight began, as well as where the new space revolution is booming. They include destinations such as the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, various NASA centres, and international space centres. 

Talks by NASA astronauts are on the itinerary, as well. The company predicts that it may soon be able to send tour groups to its own science centre, which is currently under development. This Informative Entertainment Center will focus on showcasing technologies for the settlement of outer space and in sharing the advances of the new commercial space industry with the public. According to the Executive Summary, the NewSpace Center will include a "first of its kind, immersive, full-scale Mars settlement replica, where visitors will learn first-hand what life will be like on the early Mars frontier."

The 60,000 square foot centre will hold an interactive museum, a research facility, and a business centre. It will be open to the public for developing, testing, and demonstrating robotics, hydroponic farming, and other leading space technologies. There, visitors will be able to participate in activities, such as trying on the latest spacesuit models, eating high protein algae samples grown in special farms, and touring a mock Martian greenhouse. 

The showcased hardware, vehicles and infrastructure from the world's most innovative commercial space companies will "entertain and inspire, capitalising on the energy and spirit of innovation which defines NewSpace".

Technical research

While public education and support are crucial to 4Frontiers' mission, the technical research aspect is a frontier that has not been neglected. The company is researching everything for making life on Mars a reality, from the psychological factors to efficient greenhouse construction.

4Frontiers was recently awarded a $25,000 research grant to help pursue its technology roadmap for Mars settlement technologies. The grant is from the Florida Space Grant Consortium, part of the Florida Space Research & Education Grant Program. The goal of the project is to study the performance of various transparent materials that are potential candidates for use in future Mars greenhouses. The research involves the construction of small chambers to which these materials will be affixed, simulating a Mars greenhouse. These chambers will then be placed within a larger chamber that will simulate the environmental conditions found on the Martian surface. The project will investigate the heat transfer and stress performance of these materials under the red planet's unique conditions.

"If we think that we are going to go to Mars sometime in the future, we must start being realistic about the actual ways people might live there," says Dr Ray Bucklin, agricultural engineering professor at the University of Florida and co-principal investigator. "The work done has been looking at plant response to types of environments that we would see on Mars but not much done on what those materials look like."

"There are different factors on the surface of Mars, the effects of which we need to understand; UV radiation, lower gravity and the atmospheric gases on Mars are very different [than on Earth]," continues Alexander Stimpson, a 2008 NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate intern at 4Frontiers who assisted with this research. 

Stimpson and another intern, John Truett, both agricultural engineering graduates from the University of Florida, modelled a supporting steel framework connecting an array of transparent windows made of polycarbonate or coated glass. They used the software package MATLAB to create computer simulations, allowing them to find an optimal balance between various parameters, including window size and thickness, the mass of glass and steel, and the seal length and opacity.

Another ESMD grant intern spent the summer working on a slightly less traditional assignment: helping settlers on Mars survive the extreme environments that they will encounter on other Martian locations. Tara Allen holds a bachelor's degree in Human Factors Psychology from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She used Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer 8.0 software to model the interior architecture designs for a 4Frontiers Mars settlement. This, along with efficient floor designs and other features, would make a stay on Mars more comfortable, from room sizes and community bathrooms to wall colours. 

"Making things as comfortable and livable as possible to help cope with life away from Earth has a huge psychological importance," Allen explains.

Consultation phase

As for the third business segment that the corporation operates, consultancy, "the company is developing a solid client base for its space technology engineering consulting. Real value can be added in this area through cross-pollination between different technical disciplines," says Joseph Palaia, vice president and co-founder of 4Frontiers.

The company has provided consulting services for various organisations, including one researching advanced energy conversion technology in Florida and another manufacturing semiconductor equipment in Massachusetts. The company has helped other customers such as Galactic Suite Limited, a company aiming to get an orbiting space vacation resort open in 2012. 

"Technical solutions we develop for the space frontier often have direct applicability here on earth," says Palaia.

Cross-pollination also happens between the people of 4Frontiers. The company effectively leverages their diverse skills and talents; not only for the technical researchers of 4Frontiers, but also the managers, advisors, consultants, interns, and researchers who each contribute their unique skills to make the company what it is today.

"People will go to lengths to get a position with our company, because they believe strongly in what we are attempting to accomplish," says Palaia. "That's powerful."

As varied as the company members are, they share a common link: this belief in 4Frontiers' mission and a passion for space exploration. For example, the two co-founders of 4Frontiers, Homnick and Palaia, both have engineering backgrounds and have played leading roles in the company's Mars settlement design efforts. 

One 4Frontiers extreme environment consultant, Sheryl Bishop, PhD, is the associate Professor and director for the Space Life Sciences PhD curriculum in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch, as well as a faculty member at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. Another, geochemist advisor, Michael Duke PhD, has worked with NASA for 25 years.

The varied expertise does not stop with technical experts. Artist and editor Michael Carroll has been an astronomy artist and science writer, whose art has appeared in several hundred magazines such as National Geographic, for over two decades. He has written a children's story titled 'The Haunted Airlock' for [new window].

4Frontiers educational material consultant Thomas Baird, with 35 years of science education and leadership experience, has been a teacher, community college instructor, director of a science and environmental center, and Florida Department of Education Project director and co-principal investigator of a National Science Foundation project.

Many other artists, engineers, managers, authors and technical specialists have been a crucial part of this effort. Even astronaut Buzz Aldrin is an advisor to the company.

And one final motivation is key to 4Frontiers' success, according to Palaia: "Human beings benefit from going into new environments. Here on Earth, we've run out of physical frontiers."

So whether you are planning to live on Mars soon, tour a replica colony at the Informative Entertainment Center or another tour destination, or if you are looking for a consultancy partner, 4Frontiers may just be your boarding pass.

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