Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

What entrepreneurs can learn from space exploration

ASU planetary scientist turns to business for management skills as she plans NASA mission

Published: Sep 12, 2019 12:16:30 PM IST
Updated: Sep 12, 2019 12:20:00 PM IST

What entrepreneurs can learn from space explorationImage: Shutterstock

In today’s business world, innovation is considered the key to longevity. The idea of venturing into the unknown to explore new frontiers – whether that means seeking out new markets or new product lines, is at the heart of most successful business strategies. The unprecedented success of companies like Amazon, Airbnb, and Netflix, often at the expense of their more traditional industry counterparts has changed business forever.

While there has been much buzz around the idea of innovation lately, perhaps we can all agree that nothing is more innovative than space exploration.  The idea of going beyond the known world to explore new frontiers outside of the earth’s axis, is indeed at the vanguard of the vanguard.

With that connection between innovation and space exploration in mind, Thunderbird turned to a leader in planetary science to be keynote speaker at “Innovation for Today, Tomorrow and the Future,” a professional development workshop for alumni held at the school’s global headquarters in downtown Phoenix.

Professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist and director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and co-chair (with ASU President Michael Crow) of the Interplanetary Initiative, was the workshop’s keynote speaker, connected the dots between understanding space and being able to thrive here on Earth.

“Exploring the terrestrial system around us is a crucial piece in better understanding our present home, the Earth,” Prof. Elkins-Tanton told the gathering of alumni and professors. “For every new discovery we make about the planetary system, we also learn something new about the Earth itself.”

Space, Innovation & the 4th Industrial Revolution
Prof. Elkins-Tanton’s message is in keeping with Thunderbird’s new strategy to prepare leaders for the 4thIndustrial Revolution.

In addition to her post as a leading academic and scholar at ASU, Professor Tanton is Principal Investigator (PI) of NASA’s Psyche mission. Psyche is a planned orbiter mission that will explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche. “This mission will be the first time humans will ever be able to see a planetary core,” said Prof. Elkins-Tanton, who proposed the mission for NASA’s Discovery Program. Prof. Elkins-Tanton’s team, which has no prior experience performing such a mission impressively beat out many others in a long pitch process.

“The call of the wild places, of exploration, is also deep in our human bones,” the professor wrote in a recent Slate article about how the future of space exploration is female.

Understanding Psyche to Understand Ourselves
Psyche will be the first mission to a world made of metal instead of rock or ice, which previous expeditions have focused on. Initial research by Prof. Elkins-Tanton and her team suggest that the Psyche asteroid offers a unique window into the history of collisions and accretion (or accumulation of particles into a massive object) to which scientists credit the formation of the planetary system.

Since humanity cannot see or measure the Earth’s core directly, Prof. Elkins-Tanton said, Psyche is the only known place in our solar system where we can directly examine what is presumed to be the metallic core of an early planet.

The Business of Exploration
The $760 million Psyche mission is expected to begin in the summer of 2022 and return to Earth in 2027.

An impressive team of scientists and researchers has been assembled to build the spacecraft needed to make this mission possible. Imagine if you will, a team of nearly 40 people representing 15 distinct institutions, all highly regarded experts in their fields.

And they are led by an expert in planetary formation an evolution who is also a little like project CEO. Prof. Elkins-Tanton’s time as principal investigator is increasingly taken up by the day-to-day responsibilities that go with managing such a diverse team. Part of the Psyche team leader’s role is to develop the budget and make sure that costs continue to align with it even as market conditions continue to fluctuate.

Prof. Elkins-Tanton credits her success so far as the Psyche’s PI to the time she has spent working with the corporate world, acquiring and honing fundamental management skills, a unique perspective that most career academics like her seldom have the opportunity to acquire.

The Exploration of Business
“Some key management skills you need to lead a successful space exploration mission,” according to Prof. Elkins-Tanton, “include team management, budget forecasting and management, negotiations, and proposal writing and pitching.”

While none of these skills are usually taught in scientific doctoral or research programs, they are certainly par for the course in business or management degree programs.

Thunderbird’s new transdisciplinary curriculum, which offers 16 different concentrations in addition to the core management courses that are the hallmark of the Thunderbird Degree are designed to help students get ready for the new career opportunities that the 4thIndustrial Revolution provides.

So far, none of those concentrations covers space exploration, but there is definitely a lot of overlap, a lot that space scientists and global business leaders can learn from each other.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the online thought leadership platform for Thunderbird School of Global Management]