The Pittsburgh company launching a lunar lander on Christmas Eve has long attracted support from NASA and has leveraged the technology and robotics talent coming out of local universities.
Now, that company has support from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which this month gave Astrobotic Technologies a $4 million grant to help develop its headquarters on the Pittsburgh’s North Side.
The grant reflects Pennsylvania’s strong interest in developing a space industry in the Pittsburgh region, Gov. Josh Shapiro said.
“My administration is working hard to help companies like Astrobotic grow and thrive so they can continue to focus on making history. We’ll continue to invest in their success to ensure the next innovation happens here,” Shapiro said.
Like other notable Pittsburgh tech startups, Astrobotic’s roots are at Carnegie Mellon University: Professor William “Red” Whittaker, widely regarded as the father of field robotics, co-founded the company in 2007.
“We’re deeply grateful to the governor for his support of Astrobotic’s growth plans. We believe Astrobotic’s latest expansion is a clear indicator of new high-tech growth in the commonwealth, particularly in the space industry,” said John Thornton, Astrobotic CEO.
First Moon landing in 50 years
Since its founding, Astrobotic has evolved and grown into a “lunar logistics provider,” a sort of combined travel agent and freight forwarder for space travel. The company now partners with private businesses and government agencies around the world to develop and deliver scientific equipment and experiments to the Moon.
The company also develops advanced space robotics capabilities, such as terrain relative navigation and mobile robotics for lunar surface operations.
In October, the company’s Peregrine lunar lander arrived safely in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and unloaded at Astrotech facilities, where it will be integrated with the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan for launch on Dec. 24.
Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander is currently scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Dec. 24 onboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket. The mission will be the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since 1972. (Image courtesy of Astrobotic Technologies)
The December launch will be the first commercial mission to the moon and the first American spacecraft to land there since Apollo 17 in 1972. Peregrine will deliver payloads to the moon for companies, governments, universities, non-profits and individuals.
The company, economic development officials hope, is one part of a plan to make Pittsburgh and the tri-state region a regional space research center.
“There is a whole ecosystem of space companies and research in this area,” said Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. “We’re going to make history.”
Space growth doubling
Last summer, the Keystone Space Collaborative— a nonprofit organization and serve the region’s growing space industry—announced plans to build a Space and Innovation District on an eight-acre site on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Now valued at $470 million, the global space industry is expected to grow to a $1 trillion industry by 2030, a rate of 6-10 percent growth every year, according to collaborative co-founder and chair Justine Kasznica, a lawyer who also is counsel to Astrobotic.
While Carnegie Mellon gets national attention for its innovation, the collaborative is being promoted as a broadly regional effort that includes many institutions in the tri-state area, Kasznica said.
The University of Pittsburgh is home to the Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing, which is partnering with Astrobotic on VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) exploration of the Moon’s surface for water and ice, which could be used to manufacture breathable air and rocket propellant for future human exploration.
The project is a precursor to NASA’s 2024 mission to put astronauts on the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years.
Thornton, the Astrobotic CEO, said the launch is decisive in the region’s economic transition from heavy industry to tech.
“Pittsburgh used to be built as a steel town, and now we are a tech one. Steel helped to build things, and we are still building things that are building the country, just in a different way,” Thornton told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “If Pittsburgh can land on the moon, it means Pittsburgh can do anything.”