Nonstop: Pittsburgh to the Moon. Sort of

Local tech startup to land first spacecraft on Moon since Apollo

By Natalie Fiorilli

Published October 4, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


In 2021, Pittsburgh will be going to the moon. Well, at least parts of Pittsburgh will be.

A Pittsburgh-based space robotics company and Carnegie Mellon University spinoff, Astrobotic will launch the first aircraft to touch down on the moon from the United States since NASA’s Apollo lunar program ended in 1972.

Astrobotic, which is headquartered in Downtown Pittsburgh, got its start in 2007 to compete in Google’s “Lunar X Prize” competition, according to CEO John Thornton. The challenge offered a $20 million grand prize to the team that could develop a spacecraft able to land on the moon and transmit photos and video back to Earth. Google never selected a winner.

“That was the catalyst that really had us going,” said Thornton. “Today, what we’re all about is building a delivery service to go to the moon, and once there, we can provide power and communication services to customers so they can operate their payloads on the surface on the moon.”

In May, NASA awarded the tech company a $79.5 million contract to deliver 14 payloads, or equipment, to the moon as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

In addition to NASA, Astrobotic has contracts with Carnegie Mellon and more than a dozen companies, government agencies, universities and non-profits representing eight different countries. As part of its first mission, the company will launch its lunar lander, Peregrine, to deliver a variety of payloads for client companies, including materials for scientific investigation, technology demonstration and exploration.

“There’s only been three nations to ever land on the moon, and they’ve all been superpowers,” said Thornton, a CMU alum who originally began as an engineer with Astrobotic and now leads the program. “It’s an honor that we are going to be flying this next mission to the moon.

“We’ll have several nations operating on the moon for the first time with this mission, and to be a part of those stories is really special for us, and we’re honored to be able to help them make history for their countries.”

Pittsburgh to the Moon?

The lunar lander is scheduled to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2021.

Along with commercial payload deliveries, Astrobotic is offering the chance for the public to send personal mementos to the moon in a lunar capsule –including a piece of Pittsburgh, through a partnership with the Senator John Heinz History Center.

“They had a competition and people voted on what Pittsburgh will be sending to the moon,” said Thornton. “There were songs from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a Terrible Towel, and even a write-in for an Eat’n Park cookie.”

What Pittsburghers voted for was to send a gold token from Kennywood Park.

A product of the world-renowned research university Carnegie Mellon, Astrobotic is just one of nearly 300 spinoff companies with roots at CMU. The university’s Robotics Institute has also produced RE2 Robotics and Titan Robotics, with graduates and faculty going on to represent tech giants like Uber and some specializing in developing autonomous systems.

Astrobotic has become one of the city’s most significant startup companies in the growing tech sector, said Jonathan Kersting, vice president of communications and media for the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

“They’ve had a clear and consistent vision since day one,” said Kersting, adding that companies like Astrobotic are helping to expand the region’s tech sector by recruiting industry-leading talent. “[Tech startups] need these people to grow and succeed, and while many professionals are emerging from our local universities, this is giving us an even bigger opportunity to attract top talent from around the world.”

Having access to those resources is one reason his company continues to be based in Pittsburgh, Thornton said.

“We’re a space robotics company at the core, and ultimately being here in Pittsburgh provides us access to that talent on the robotics side and then we import space and mix those two together and we have the world’s best space robotics,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s why we are here and why we will continue to be competitive for decades to come, because we have access to a fantastic talent pool here.”

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