Why a small Pittsburgh firm could win the moon race

“We’re all dreamers, big kids doing what we love to do.”

It's the year 2023. NASA is hard at work, studying the moon and expanding our understanding of it.

To learn more about the moon in this future mission, NASA is using a VIPER -- Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover -- which is a golf-cart-sized vehicle that's scuttling around the Moon’s South Pole. It's armed with a powerful drill that's more than three feet long. Its mission is to gather samples that will form the first global water resource maps of the Moon.

If that sounds underwhelming, it’s important to remember that in unknown territories, maps are power. Think Lewis and Clark: making maps allows people to control an area, for better or worse.

The water resources on the Moon are valuable — they could be converted into rocket fuel, making the Moon the first interplanetary gas station — and VIPER will determine the facts on the ground. NASA has not announced which private company it will partner with for the spacecraft, lander and launch vehicle, but has confirmed the contracts will be part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.

VIPER could be the first American rover on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, and it will be up to Astrobotic to get it to the lunar surface.

NASA's newest rover, the VIPER, is currently being tested. It's expected to launch in 2022, carried by an Astrobotic Griffin Moon lander.NASA
“We have a really good run going right now.”

Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, might not be the most well-known name in the space industry. It builds moon landers for rovers like VIPER, completing that crucial last step of getting a rover from a spacecraft to the surface of an alien world.

What Astrobotic lacks in star wattage it makes up for in wins: the company's website rattles off the NASA contracts.

The VIPER contract, Astrobotic's most recent success, was announced on June 11, 2020. Hailing the victory, Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said in a press statement that “it is an enormous honor and responsibility to be chosen by NASA to deliver this mission of national importance."

Recent contracts include:

  • $199.5 million for VIPER
  • $750,000 to continue development of UltraNav, a low-cost, autonomous, visual navigation system for spacecraft, announced June 3, 2020
  • $79.5 million to deliver 14 NASA payloads to the Moon in 2021, announced May 2019
  • $5.6 million to develop an autonomous rover of its own with Carnegie Mellon University, announced July 2019.

The company is now on a hiring spree, seeking over twenty new positions as it looks to expand to meet demand.

“We have a really good run going right now,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton tells Inverse.

And with big wins, come expectations. “Flying to the moon is very challenging, as we’ve seen with new nations trying to land,” Thornton says. He’s referring to much-ballyhooed launches by Israel and India, two countries that hoped a lunar landing would symbolically announce their entrance into an elite club of nations — only the United States, China, and the now-defunct Soviet Union have ever had a “soft,” or successful, landing.

Both the Israeli Beresheet and the Indian Chandrayaan-2 got to the Moon’s orbit. But at the last minute, each failed and resulted in a “hard” landing, otherwise known as a crash. A software glitch doomed Chandrayaan-2, while a gyroscope’s failure on Beresheet led to what Israeli scientists described as a “chain of events” that resulted in a crash.

While both missions gained technical and scientific knowledge, nobody dreams of a hard landing.

An artist's conception of the Griffin, having successfully landed on lunar soil.Astrobotic
“The time that I will be biting my nails the most will, of course, be during the landing itself.”

Thinking about VIPER and Astrobotic’s other precious cargo, Thornton is well aware of those failures.

“The time that I will be biting my nails the most will, of course, be during the landing itself,” Thornton says with a short laugh. “It’s the last half hour or so, it’s done completely autonomously. The descent starts on the far side of the Moon, relative to where the landing site is, and it’s fully autonomous for about half an hour and we’re watching and hoping that everything goes well. That’s the culmination of years of work, development, testing. That will be a very exciting and successful thirty minutes.”

What exactly happens in those thirty minutes? — Altitude control thrusters surround the Griffin, Astrobotic's signature lander, controlling its orientation as it descends. Then, seven main engines fire twice — first to enter lunar orbit, and then again to descend lower. At a proper height, the craft will begin a lunar descent phase, where it starts to enter a trajectory that “almost intersects with the Moon,” Thornton says, “and that sends us on a terminal trajectory toward landing.”

Near the very end of the voyage, “we’re firing our engines full bore, to take all the extra energy out of the system for a nice soft landing.” As all of that’s happening, a terrain navigation system is constantly taking photos of the surface, matching them to internal maps. Then, getting even closer, a hazard detection system kicks in, scanning for possible physical threats to the lander. At that point, with no rocks or depressions along the way to scuttle the landing, the engines let up and a soft landing commences.

“It’s that easy,” Thornton says with a bigger laugh.

An artist's conception of what VIPER will look like as it exits the Griffin.Astrobotic

Thornton sees Astrobotic’s work through the lens of a mail carrier. Astrobotic’s website promotes collaboration with DHL, the German shipping company, the DHL Moonbox, which, at a price point Thornton describes starting at a few hundred dollars, collects “small mementos for inclusion” on the company’s first trip to the Moon in 2021. The idea of immortality through Moon access has some appeal, Thornton tells me, saying that items so far range from time capsules to pet hair. “Their stories will be forever intertwined with” the Moon, Thornton says.

One consistency within the space industry, from Astrobotic to SpaceX to NASA, is romanticization. Directly informed by both the hard science of the Apollo missions and the fictional exploration presented in Star Trek, programs like Moonbox seek to incorporate both.

“I think that’s a reflection of who works on it,” Thornton says. “We’re all dreamers, big kids doing what we love to do.”

The Griffin extraterrestrial lander developed by Astrobotic will transport the VIPER moon lander from spacecraft to the moon.astrobotic.com

Astrobotic wasn’t always a company of big kids doing what they love to do, though. Thornton was an engineer with the company at its founding in 2007, and during the early days Thornton describes some “tough challenges” that resulted in the company almost “going under two or three times.” At a low spot, the entirety of Astrobotic was Thornton and two other employees. But Thornton’s rise to President in 2012, and then CEO in 2013, has set the company on a very different trajectory. Nabbing “first commercial lunar payload delivery sale ever,” gave the company a cash infusion, which led it down a road with Thornton being named CEO of the Year by the Pittsburgh Technology Council in 2019.

The company had been preparing for a mission like VIPER for years, Thornton says, and he has been thinking on it for longer than that. Thirteen years ago, when he was still at Carnegie Mellon, he worked on a rover called Scarab.

“That rover was the first mobile platform to have a drill attached to it to drill for water on the Moon, and it was just a concept rover at the time, but that same payload has evolved over many years to become what is now the VIPER rover, to go to the Moon.”

Thirteen years could come down to thirteen minutes.

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