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Astrobotic Brings a Down-to-Earth Approach to Space Exploration

By Todd Miller

Cover Stories MadeinPA
OnRAMP

From Astrobotic’s beginnings in 2007, when the company sought to provide clients with data from the Moon’s surface, the North Side-based enterprise has transformed itself into a lunar logistics company under the leadership of CEO John Thornton. In delivering payloads to the Moon for companies, governments, universities and not-for-profit organizations, Astrobotic has travelled light years from its origins in a robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). 

Since transitioning to its current business model almost a decade ago, the company has helped the Pittsburgh region benefit from the nation’s $400 billion space industry by contracting with numerous manufacturers and service providers for everything from aerospace components to printed circuit boards to construction and maintenance. About 75 percent of industry spending is private sector dollars.

Last summer, Astrobotic relocated from the Strip District to a brand new 47,000-square-foot headquarters in Pittsburgh’s Manchester neighborhood. The company’s new digs are a result of prevailing over more than a dozen competitors to run a pair of missions to the Moon in cooperation with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 

One mission will occur during the second half of this year during an eight-day period to be determined, and the other one will happen in 2023. Those uncrewed (astronaut-less) trips will mark America’s return to the lunar surface following an absence of almost 50 years, when Apollo 17 carried three astronauts and a biological experiment containing five mice in December 1972.  

With a team of more than 110 people that has grown more than six-fold over the past two years, Astrobotic employs more than 80 mechanical, electrical, software, mobility, vision and computing engineers, as well as marketing and logistic professionals who have helped the company become a leader in commercial space flight. 

That position results from being focused on the hard work involved with developing lunar vehicles rather than on aggressive promotion, as well as from being transparent with customers about the price of participating in a mission. In typical Pittsburgh “what you see is what you get” fashion, those numbers are spelled out clearly in the company’s Payload User’s Guide which is available at Astrobotic.com.  

Making History

When the Peregrine lunar landers takes off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, it will be the first-ever spacecraft to commercially delivery payloads of various types of non-hazardous contents to our nearest neighbor in the solar system. One-half of the payload will be from 16 commercial contracts and the balance will be from NASA. The lander will make three orbits of differing lengths around the Moon before landing near the Moon’s north pole. Robots developed and controlled by Astrobotic engineers and other commercial customers will unload contents and perform experiments devised by customers.

Astrobotic charges $1.2 million per kilogram to transport payloads in the lander, which is 8 feet in diameter and 6 feet tall. This year’s mission is nearly sold out to customers that include the Mexican Space Agency (AEM – Agencia Espacia Mexicana) and a company in the United Kingdom that wants to test a crawling robot on the Moon’s surface. Astrobotic’s 2023 mission on the Griffin lander will be headed to the Moon’s south pole. 

Through a partnership with DHL, the international logistics company, Astrobotic has made a MoonBox available to consumers who want to send photos, jewelry or other non-hazardous items to the Moon and receive a photograph of the object box (capsule) on the lunar surface, as well as a mission certificate. Depending upon the size of the capsule, prices range from $460 to $1,660. 

The company has also partnered on several projects with Airbus, a European multi-national aerospace corporation that is best known for manufacturing commercial aircraft. Astrobotic has also collaborated with Bosch, the German appliance manufacturer, which has a research and technology center in the Strip District focusing on investigating new and established internet-related technologies and deploying them among Bosch business units worldwide. 

Astrobotic’s partnership with Bosch focused on listening to sounds made by the International Space Station, a modular, habitable satellite in low Earth orbit, and developing “sound seen technology,” a machine learning algorithm that detects unusual noises made by mechanical devices in need of repair. Bosch has used the technology in its own products and has made it available to other companies for consumer and industrial applications.

“It’s always great to partner with other companies, but partnering with other Pittsburgh companies is quite special,” says CEO Thornton. Another significant collaboration has been with Dynetics, which was acquired by Leidos in December 2019, and is integrating the Peregrine lunar lander’s propulsion system for its first mission. 

Weathering the Storm

Although the pandemic has forced Astrobotic to diversify its supply chain, Thornton feels fortunate about how the company has fared over the past year. “It has been challenging to work with a dramatically reduced onsite staff, but because we were deemed an essential business, we’ve been able to overcome adversity.”

Astrobotic’s cost structure has endeared the company to NASA, which awarded Astrobotic an $80 million contract through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS, pronounced “clips”) program. The purpose of CLPS is to utilize commercial end-to-end services for NASA payload delivery to the Moon.  

Rather than building the lander, buying the launch, and operating the mission, NASA is buying a ticket to the Moon with a commercial service. By purchasing the ticket, the agency’s leadership is accelerating the creation of a commercial ecosystem on the lunar surface.  NASA’s effect on this market is like the one it had on integrated circuits in the 1960s as the agency’s demand for those products during the Apollo program vastly accelerated commercial interest, leading to their widespread adoption across the electronics market.

Astrobotic’s relationship with NASA goes back to the mid-2010s when the space agency selected the company to participate in the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST ) initiative to promote the development commercial cargo transportation capabilities for Moon landings.

“That experience was a positive one for us and for NASA,” says Dan Hendrickson, Astrobotic’s vice president of business development. “I think they appreciated our open communication style, as well as our capabilities.”

Creating an Industry? 

A principal objective of the upcoming Griffin lunar lander mission will be to deliver the NASA VIPER rover, which is seeking out frozen water on the Moon that could one day be split onto oxygen and hydrogen. These elements could be used to power workstations and refuel vehicles on the Moon, allowing for new types of scientific inquiry and business activity.

If a company is successful in extracting ice from just below the Moon’s surface and creating fuel, it will have pioneered a multi-billion-dollar industry to harness resources outside of the earth’s atmosphere. 

“With so many challenges related to sustainability on earth, the Moon represents a potential alternative location for academic and commercial activities because one wouldn’t be disturbing a delicate ecosystem,” says Thornton. 

What’s more, if a plentiful supply of fuel became available on the Moon, Thornton foresees the space travel industry flourishing. “Space is cool, and it’s fun. Our upcoming missions will capture eyeballs, which can lead to greater interest in the Moon, and in our company, from scientists, businesspeople and consumers alike.”

Another factor that works in Astrobotic’s favor is its location. “When people visit us and realize we’re right next to Downtown Pittsburgh, they get excited because they can easily take advantage of the city’s amenities while they’re in town doing business. Combined with our superior technology and logistics capabilities, being close to the Carnegie Museums, National Aviary, cultural venues and professional sports facilities is a big plus.”

Although the transition of power in Washington can be unsettling for many federal programs, Thornton is confident that NASA funding will continue to flow. One of the ways Astrobotic hopes to strengthen its relationship with the space agency is by participating in NASA’s Artemis missions that are scheduled to transport astronauts to the Moon in 2024.

“NASA enjoys tremendous bipartisan support, and it does so much for so little – less than one percent of the federal budget,” says Thornton. “What we get in return drives innovation and is something in which society should always be investing.”

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