From Manchester to Pittsburgh to the moon: Astrobotic launches new lunar missions

The ground control of the first commercial trip to the moon will be in some building on the north side of Pittsburgh, near the Manchester district.

A group of federal, state and local officials on Monday celebrated a private ribbon cutting for Astrobotics head office at the 47,000 square foot complex at 1016 North Lincoln Ave.

The standout startup was launched in 2007 as a spin-off of the Institute of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, and has thrived since its inception in a 400-square-foot room above a store of bagels in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

He also found space in a former Strip District industrial space and an office downtown. In December 2019, the company announced he was moving to the north side and he officially celebrated the move this week.

“We are literally in the backyard of Pittsburgh,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton.

Since the company started, Thornton, 36, a CMU alumnus, and the staff at Astrobotic have gone from a company dreaming of delivering commercial payloads to the moon to one on the verge of make these deliveries a reality.

“It took 13 years to get there,” Thornton said.

In the past year and a half, the company has grown from 18 employees to over 100, it has landed multi-million dollar contracts with Nasa and wooed and wooed local and national leaders to secure funding for his plans to build lunar landers, named Peregrine and Griffin, for the trips planned at moon.

It is also looking to hire Pittsbourgeois. While many positions require people to be engineers or have specialized experience, that’s not always the case, Thornton said. “We would like to hire more Pittsburghers,” he said.

To lay the foundation for its plans so far, Astrobotic has received $ 285,000 in job creation tax credits from the state as it pledges to invest $ 6.5 million and employ at least 95 people.

He was also helped by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and his Strategic investment Funds, which provides a gap financing loan of nearly $ 7 million.

“It’s a pretty amazing Pittsburgh story,” said Stefani Pashman, CEO of Allegheny Conference.

She admits that when the professionals who manage the Strategic Investment Fund were approached by Astrobotic, it was “an unusual business proposition.”

But the company has a solid plan, and the contracts from NASA and the private entities committed to it made Astrobotic something the Allegheny Conference wanted to support. Pashman called it an “iconic moment for the region.”

“We can make sure that happens,” she said. “It was clear that they needed this additional funding to close the gap, so we were excited to deal with that.”

Due to the nature of its business, Astrobotic has struggled to secure a private bank loan to fund its head office, Thornton said.

The support of organizations such as the Allegheny Conference and leaders of federal, state and local governments has been “invaluable,” he said.

It was tough and for much of the past 13 years Thornton has worked to convince people that Astrobotic’s plans were achievable.

The company is the type of business that economic development leaders want to attract to Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, Pashman said.

People who could work elsewhere in the aerospace industry are choosing to work with Astrobotic and moving to Pittsburgh, and it’s exciting, she said.

“We’re on the map,” Pashman said. “People take their chances and believe in Manchester. “

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was 5 when he first landed in 1969. “When I was 6, I could name all the planets,” he said of his fascination with exploration spatial.

With Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, the reality of space exploration is “now on the streets for every young child in Pittsburgh,” he said in a statement.

US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross joined a crowd of officials who were invited to the opening of the facility.

“You (Astrobotic) currently lead the market with seventeen contracts in place for your first assignment with clients in seven countries,” Ross said, according to a statement. “The Commerce Department will continue to make resources available to you and the entire US commercial space industry to ensure that we remain the leader in space commerce.”

Astrobotic’s first mission is slated for next year using his Peregrine lander. It would be the first US spacecraft on the moon since the Apollo program ended in the 1970s and is funded by a $ 79.5 million contract awarded by NASA.

In 2022, a second NASA mission, dubbed Moonrover, is expected to deliver an autonomous lunar rover funded by another $ 5.6 million NASA contact.

A third mission, dubbed Griffin, is scheduled for 2023, to deliver the Viper rover to explore the lunar south pole in anticipation of a manned return to the moon. It is funded by a $ 199.5 million contract with NASA.

Although Astrobotic’s work has been delayed due to the covid-19 pandemic, Thornton is still hopeful for a mission at some point next year.

“This is the culmination of 13 years of work. We have a facility, mission control, we have the team now, ”Thornton said. “There is a clear path and a countdown to get started. This is the dream and it is now becoming a reality.

Tom Davidson is editor-in-chief of Tribune-Review. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Troy M. Hoffman