Pittsburgh company Astrobotic selected by NASA to deliver payloads to the moon
Fifty years ago, in December 1968, America was heading into the holidays at the end of a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and anti-Vietnam War protests all over the country.
The country’s spirits were lifted Dec. 21 that year when Apollo 8 became the first manned space craft to orbit the moon, followed seven months later by the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Now, America is going back to the moon, and a Pittsburgh-based company is going along for the ride.
Astrobotic Technology Inc., an aerospace payload company founded 10 years ago by famed Carnegie Mellon professor Red Whittaker and headquartered at 25th and Liberty in the Strip District, is among nine companies declared eligible by NASA to be a delivery provider of payloads to the moon.
The 10-year Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract that Astrobotic is now part of will enable the first NASA payloads to be soft-landed on the lunar surface since the Apollo program.
“It’s very exciting,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said. “NASA has declared that they’re going back to the moon and the vanguard of that program is this program that was just announced yesterday for robotic deliveries to the surface of the moon for NASA payloads to be purchased commercially on the open market.”
Thornton said this is something new for NASA, which last manned a mission to the moon with Apollo 17 in December 1972.
“The difference between then and now is that back then, it was government-led missions,” Thornton said. “Now they’re taking a very commercial approach and simplifying the process.
“What NASA cares most about is how their payloads are going to be operating on the surface, can they get there, how long they are going to be able to operate, and what kind of data they are going to be able to return back to Earth.”
Astrobotic will have an opportunity to deploy its Peregrine lunar lander, which is a much smaller version of the lunar landers that transported Apollo astronauts including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, as well as machines, from their command modules to the moon’s surface.
“Our lander uses a lot of the same technology, the basic premises of it,“ Thornton. said “But, of course, there has been 50 years of advancement, so there is really great sensing and computing and software that is going to be running on our lander.
“So this will open up the moon for our nation’s scientists and explorers and technology developments to make the moon a testing ground and exploration and science domain for the nation’s, and ultimately, the world’s scientists.”
Thornton said that means different lunar modules landing in the interests of different nations.
“For example, one of our customers is the Mexican Space Agency and they will be sending a small technology demonstration up to the surface of the moon. And that’s really cool for them because they are a modestly sized agency that’s fairly new. But through our program, they could be the fourth nation to operate on the surface of the moon. And we’re really excited to be a part of that story.”
Once the lunar lander is free of the launch vehicle, Astrobotic is in control of the lander as it orbits the moon and descends to the surface.
All of which will be controlled from Pittsburgh.
“Right now our plan is to control it out of our facility in Pittsburgh,” Thornton said. “But we are looking at all of our options for mission control because we are certainly aware that it’s going to be a pretty cool, exciting event for the city. Maybe there are ways to make a really big splash and have something where a lot of people can be involved and see what’s going on.”
Options for a Pittsburgh mission control setting include the Carnegie Science Center, Heinz Field and PNC Park, Thornton said.
In the meantime, the Peregrine lunar lander can be seen in a display at the Heinz History Center right next to the actual Command Module Columbia, the only remaining portion of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to complete the first mission to land a man on the moon.
The Peregrine lunar lander can deliver up to 265 kilograms ( 584 pounds ) of payload on each mission.
And while these payload deliveries are being seen as an important bridge to a future human return to the moon, Thornton said the idea of Astrobotic building something that transports humans remains a distant dream for now.
“Maybe we could potentially get involved in that,” he said. “Right now, we’re focused on the robotic side. It’s a tough enough nut to crack.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.