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Strip District startup Astrobotic works on rover capable of landing on moon

| Monday, May 5, 2014, 10:48 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, shows Polaris the rover in the company's the Strip District office.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Astrobotic’s base is in a cavernous warehouse on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District.

Most people look to the evening sky and see a moon that is literally a world away.

One Pittsburgh company wants to bring it closer.

“Our goal is to make the moon as close as the next continent,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic.

Houston was the epicenter of American space exploration in the 20th century, but Thornton's hope is that Astrobotic can establish Pittsburgh as Space City USA for the 21st.

Inside a cavernous warehouse on Liberty Avenue, the Strip District startup is developing a rover capable of landing on the moon. Astrobotic is one of 18 teams vying for the Google Lunar Xprize, an award sponsored by the software giant that will give $20 million to the first private group to land on the moon by the end of 2015.

Thornton expects a big year for the company. Formed in 2008 out of Carnegie Mellon University, Astrobotic intends to grow its 14-person staff to 23. This month, the company more than doubled its space in anticipation of additional engineers and sales staff.

The Google Xprize is a driving force behind Astrobotic's ambitions, but the company has a vision beyond winning the money. Cuts in federal funding for space travel left a void that entrepreneurs in the commercial marketplace — estimated at $1.9 billion by London Economics — have stepped in to fill.

Potential customers range from researchers, educators, marketers, government agencies and even developing nations that are willing to spend as much as $550,000 per pound of payload to rocket products to the moon. Though Astrobotic doesn't build the rockets — that's being done by another private company, SpaceX — the Pittsburgh outfit is developing the software, rover and lander to safely guide products into orbit and onto the lunar surface.

Think of Astrobotic as a “FedEx or UPS to the moon,” Thornton said.

Astrobotic attracted attention from a number of enterprises, including Houston-based Celestis, which sends cremated human remains into space. The company is perhaps best known for sending the remains of 1960s icon Timothy Leary and “Star Trek” developer Gene Roddenberry into orbit.

Celestis founder and CEO Charles Chafer said he agreed to buy space on Astrobotic's lunar lander when it is ready to roll.

Chafer would like to make scattering ashes in space as commonplace as scattering them at sea. But the industry needs to make space exploration routine and affordable. “The age of commercial space (travel) is truly upon us,” Chafer said.

Though Thornton won't give specifics, he said the company is tripling revenue this year and attracted “millions” in private investment. Astrobotic has at least 16 contracts with NASA worth an estimated $13 million — $9.5 million of which is payable only when Astrobotic accomplishes its mission, Thornton said.

Public-private partnerships have potential to find innovative, and more cost-effective, ways to travel in space, said Nantel Suzuki, robotic lunar lander program executive for NASA.

NASA wants to find better ways of landing on the moon, he said.

“We're talking about trying to make space transportation more affordable and sustainable,” Suzuki said. “That's really the mode that NASA's in right now.”

A project that would have cost NASA $300 million two decades ago can be built and started for less than $2 million with the help of private enterprise, renowned planetary scientist Chris McKay told Forbes magazine in November.

Astrobotic recently had a successful test in the Mojave Desert of a hazard-detection system, which uses cameras and lasers to guide a lander toward touchdown.

In considering its partnerships, NASA looks at the long-term commercial viability of the company.

“Very importantly, how strong is their financing?” Suzuki said. “Are they going to be able to hold their end of this partnership?”

A significant advantage for Astrobotic is the people behind it. The company was spun out of CMU's world-renowned robotics program, is run by CMU alumni — including Thornton — and founded by robotics legend and CMU professor William “Red” Whittaker.

Chafer said Whittaker's involvement convinced him that Astrobotic would succeed. “They have a great deal of credibility in my view,” he said.

Whittaker is confident in Astrobotic's technology and the market for it.

“Postal service, railroads, riverboats, Internet and overnight package delivery all had ripple effects that were far beyond those seen at the time of their conceptions,” Whittaker said. “Lunar payload delivery will be no different.”

Chris Fleisher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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