John Thornton remembers his passion for space being ignited when, in his early teens, the robotic spacecraft Pathfinder landed on Mars with a roving probe.
“My ‘Apollo moment’ was seeing the Pathfinder mission” the 35-year-old Thornton said of the 1997 mission. “I still remember building a LEGO model of the rover in school.”
Years later, his company Astrobotic Technology, a developer of robotic lunar landers, is attempting to break new frontiers, planning a commercial delivery service to the moon.
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic offers clients willing to spend $1.2 million per kilogram (2.2 lbs) a chance to send packages, including research, arts and marketing, on its inaugural mission in 2021.
Earlier this year, NASA awarded Astrobotic a $79.5 million contract to deliver science and technology payloads as part of its mission to return to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. Two other private companies were chosen by NASA at the time.
“Building any company is hard, but to build a company to fly to the moon might be one of the most difficult ways to start a business,” Thornton, the chief executive officer of Astrobotic, told Karma. “There were a lot of people that doubted us along the way.”
Private spaceflight companies, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are roiling the industry once the domain of NASA. Smaller companies like Rocket Lab are piling in as NASA bets on private companies to test new technologies while it seeks to cut costs and advance exploration.
“Building any company is hard, but to build a company to fly to the moon might be one of the most difficult ways to start a business.”
Venture capital investments are soaring, rising more than 10-fold over the past five years to $1.88 billion so far this year, from $142.3 million in 2014, according to PitchBook data. Astrobotic, spun out of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, has built itself through a mix of grants, loans and venture funding. Most recently, it was awarded a $10 million NASA grant in August, 2018.
With plans to spend $2.6 billion on commercial partnerships over 10 years, NASA has selected nine companies, including Astrobotic, to compete for future contracts. Companies are expected to provide end-to-end delivery services, including operations, launch and landing on the moon.
“This is a new way of doing business for NASA, we are literally buying a service like FedEx or DHL to the lunar surface,” Camille Alleyne, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, said during a panel discussion earlier this month. “We are clear there is no marketplace right now. But we want to evolve this program into being one of many customers that our vendors are servicing.”
Under NASA contract, Astrobotic committed to deliver 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, or Lake of Death, a large crater on the near side of the moon in July 2021. The company has selected United Launch Alliance to fly its Peregrine lander on board the Vulcan Centaur rocket.
The mission would be a culmination for the company spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, an international contest to send the first private spacecraft to the moon.
“Among our greatest challenges over the years is convincing people that a small startup in Pittsburgh could accomplish what only three superpowers have done before,” said Thornton, who has been with the company from the beginning, starting as a mechanical engineer.
The lunar competition ended last year without a winner, but Astrobotic has remained committed to its mission. The company has developed two landers — the larger Griffin, capable of carrying 882 lbs. (400 kilos) of payloads, and the smaller Peregrine, which will transport 198 lbs. during the first mission. Upon landing, the payloads can remain attached to the lander or hitch a ride across the lunar surface to perform a designed task.
In the future, the company plans to ramp up its services, increasing the payload capacity and operating about one flight per year, according to the payload user guide.
NASA last month also commissioned Astrobotic to develop an autonomous rover known as MoonRange to provide 3D maps of the moon’s surface in areas such as polar regions and lunar pits.
Commercial partnerships allow NASA to reduce bureaucracy by outsourcing large parts of the mission and shifting risk onto the private sector, said Peter Ward, the author of the upcoming book “The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space.”
“The moon is about to become a busy place,” he said.
Landing on the moon, and lifting back off, is no easy task. Only three countries have ever soft-landed on the moon — the U.S., the former Soviet Union and China. Earlier this month, India’s space agency lost contact with the country’s Vikram lander when it was in the final stages of descending. In April, an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL also crashed its first privately funded spacecraft during landing.
“Our challenge is to learn from those missions, understand what happened, and make sure we learn from those mistakes,” Sharad Bhaskaran, mission director at Astrobotic, said earlier this month. “If there are design changes we can make at this stage, we will make those.”
NASA is not the only client. Astrobotic has secured 16 deals with partners worldwide for the inaugural launch. The goal is to offer a more “affordable and routine access” to the moon, says Thornton.
One example of this accessibility is a DHL Moonbox set up under the sponsorship with Deutsche Post DHL Group, which allows ordinary people to send small keepsakes like a ring or a family photo for between $450 and $1660. All the tokens will be integrated into a single moon pod attached to Astrobotic’s lander.
Peregrine will also carry a Japanese rover Hakuto that will capture a high definition video and a Chilean rover Uni that will broadcast a music video “that carries a message of faith, hope, peace and unity to the world.” Both rovers were developed during the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition.
The Peregrine mission is a first step, says Thornton. In the future, the company plans to deploy larger landers, offer sample return services and explore the potential of harvesting and producing lunar fuel for refueling rockets.
“Astrobotic will be a key player in building the future infrastructure of our moon,” he said.