Pittsburgh Leads U.S. Back to the Moon

Itt’s not easy to get from North Lincoln Avenue to the Lake of Death. North Lincoln Avenue is in Pittsburgh; the Lake of Death is on the moon—meaning there’s a tidy 385,000 km (over 239,000 mi.) Between them. But before the end of the year, that gap should close—thanks to a modest company in a modest building just a third of a mile northwest of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field, tucked humbly between a Wendy’s and a McDonald’s.

The building is the headquarters of Astrobotic, which—if all goes according to plan—will launch its Pittsburgh-made Peregrine spacecraft from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in the fourth quarter of this year, landing it in the Lake of Death, high in the north lunar hemisphere. The launch would mark the U.S.’s first attempt to put metal on the Moon since Apollo 17’s soft touchdown, just 50 years ago.

The moon has been on NASA’s mind a lot lately. Space agency NASA has promised that it will soon have its Artemis program putting astronauts on the lunar surface. This is expected to happen by the middle or end of the decade. Artemis crews will establish long-term lunar bases, rather than the Apollo crews with their short flag-and-footprints missions. But well-supplied bases don’t build and equip themselves—and they don’t come cheap, especially considering NASA’s always tight budget.

The Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS), is now available. In 2018, the space agency established CLPS to outsource the delivery of cargo and rovers to the lunar surface to the private sector—much the way NASA’s commercial crew program outsourced the delivery of astronauts to the International Space Station to SpaceX and Boeing. CLPS is contracted to create spacecraft for a variety of tasks. These include scouting out water ice deposits that could be used to make rocket fuel, drinking and breathable air on the moon, studying radiation to find the hazards for long-duration crews, ferrying up solar power and materials for building lunar greenhouses, habitats, and other jobs. The privilege to fly payloads with their commercial partners aboard CLPS missions could be paid for by international and other commercial partners. It will also increase the financial benefits for these companies. CLPS contractors also own all rights to the ships that they design. This allows them to make more ships for private customers, in the event of NASA’s refusal.

Although 14 companies have been chosen for CLPS contracts including blue-eyed giants Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and SpaceX, it’s Astrobotic who is expected to lead the charge. This is a highly unlikely pick. SpaceX, with its 12,000 employees and Lockheed Martin’s 114,000 workers aren’t the only ones to consider. Astrobotic only had 169 employees at last count (although they claim that 11 more jobs are coming soon). The 15-year old company has done a lot for very little.

Sealed inside a clean-room in its unassuming headquarters is the company’s Peregrine lander, 1.9 m (6.2 ft.) tall and 2.6 m (8.5 ft.) wide, stuffed with a suite of 24 instruments and other payloads from five different countries, including 11 different experiments from NASA—all of which will operate autonomously or be run by controllers back on Earth. Also on board are five mini-rovers from the Mexican space agency—each measuring just 12 centimeters (4.7 in) across—meant to test how semi-autonomous machines can coordinate their work on another world; a radiation sensor from the German space agency; and a rover the size of a microwave oven built and designed by students from nearby Carnegie Mellon University.

All of this has at once put Astrobotic—and Pittsburgh—very much on the cosmic map. “We’ve been called the spearhead of Artemis,” says Astrobotic director of marketing Alivia Chapla of the company’s first-in-line position. “This mission is bringing America back to the moon.”

Humility is the Key to Success

Astrobotic’s upcoming landing on the moon has its roots in a time the company failed to do just that. Google offered a $30 million prize to the first company to launch and build a lunar rover that can travel at least 500m, land softly and send back photos and videos. Google X-Prize (or Google X-Prize) was established to promote innovation and encourage competition in the private sector. While it ended in 2018 without a winner, it still made its mark—giving rise to multiple small companies that outlasted the prize itself, including Astrobotic, which began with just 18 employees.

“We started with the X-Prize, and while nobody ended up winning, it did help us prove our chops,” says John Thornton, Astrobotic CEO. “It gave us the time and the runway to build up our lunar payload delivery side.”

Astrobotic was selected for inclusion in CLPS and awarded the honour of being the first to go. This is due to the Peregrine’s agility and capabilities, as well as the rapid pace with which it has been built. Although the spacecraft is smaller than those sent by NASA to Mars, it has sufficient room to carry its more than a dozen payloads. The 11 NASA instruments are comprised of a neutron spectrum to look for water ice near or on the surface, a flux magnetometer and near-infrared scope to examine energy and particle paths moving through the lunar environment, and a laser reflector similar to those left by Apollo astronauts on the moon. Astronomers can also bounce laser beams off the laser reflector to measure distances between Earth and moon and study phenomena such as moonquakes.

Fitting all of the cargo—to say nothing of the electronics and other mechanical guts of the ship—into so relatively small a chassis was, says Victoria Dulla, project manager for Peregrine’s electrical systems team, a little like playing a game of Tetris. If laid end to end, the harnesses that hold all of the ship’s wiring in place would stretch over a mile. “People would walk by my desk and ask, ‘Why are you drawing lines all over your screen all day?’” she says. “I got to grow the design from start to finish and it really has been a dream for the past three years.”

The spacecraft was designed and built. Actually flying it to the moon will be another matter, and Peregrine’s trip to the lunar surface will be a comparatively patient and poky one. Apollo astronauts used an as-the crow flies route from Earth to reach the moon. The powerful Saturn V rocket’s upper stage rocket launched them on an orbital trajectory to the moon. This took them three days to get to their destinations. Things are slower for uncrewed spacecraft that don’t have as powerful a rocket like the Saturn V.

Peregrine will launch atop United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket and, once it separates from the rocket, will spend the better part of a month flying, first in a long, looping Earth orbit and then swinging out far enough to enter an equally swooping lunar orbit before slowly approaching the moon closer and closer, until it finally descends and lands. The Lake of Death—or Lacus Mortis, as it is known to astronomers—was chosen in part because of intriguing surface features that are nothing more or less exotic than caves, carved out by ancient volcanic activity. Caves on the moon’s surface are second in importance to the water ice. They may be able to provide shelter from radiation from space for astronauts who were able to construct sealed habitats. It is possible that a species which lived long ago as cave-people on Earth might be able to recreate those humble beginnings on Mars.

“There’s one cave in particular that has been discovered by ground penetrating radar [from lunar orbit] that could fit the city of Philadelphia inside,” says Thornton. “The water gets all the attention but I think the caves are just as big a discovery because it’s where we’re going to settle.”

For all of the work the Astrobotic crew is putting into Peregrine, the new spacecraft will not last long on the moon’s surface. Its lifespan is expected to be just two weeks—or one lunar day—before the Lake of Death is plunged into the cold and darkness of the two-week lunar night, during which temperatures plummet to as low as -130°C, (-208°F), blacking out the spacecraft’s solar panels, freezing its delicate innards, and, in effect, leaving it a derelict bit of once-prized space junk. The Voyagers 45 years old can survive deep-space cold, thanks to nuclear-fueled radiothermal heaters. However, this rare mission is not likely to carry them due to the risk of launching radioactive material.

“It’s potentially a dirty bomb if something goes wrong,” says Thornton. “There’s a ton of regulation and controls around that kind of launch, so it’s very difficult for a private company to do.” Peregrine, powered only by its solar panels, will thus live a short, but, Astrobotic hopes, productive life.

Peregrine may look impressive, but it’s not the only spacecraft Astrobotic builds for NASA. A total of $350M in contracts has been awarded to the company by NASA. Nearly $200M of this funding will be used to construct a bigger ship that Astrobotic plans to launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2023. The spacecraft, named the Griffin Lander after the mythical flying four-legged Griffin, measures in at 3.7m (12 feet) wide and long, and is 2.4m (8ft tall). The spacecraft is heading for the south lunar pole, where water ice can be found in shadowed areas and astronauts may also establish base camps. Unlike Peregrine, with its suite of two dozen instruments, Griffin will carry just one very important piece of cargo: NASA’s 450 kg (nearly 1,000 lb.) VIPER rover, a machine about the size of a golf cart, equipped with instruments to go looking—and even drilling—for water ice.

“This giant rover is being sent aboard our Griffin lunar lander,” says Chapla, “and this Griffin lander is the largest lunar lander that’s been built since the Apollo program’s lunar module.”

The Space Dividend

What Astrobotic accomplishes on the moon, it hopes to match—or at least complement—with what it accomplishes at home in Pittsburgh. It is building what the company has named its Moonshot Museum, which it shares with its existing Carnegie Science Center. This new space museum will include exhibits from the familiar space museums, as well as a large view through the window into Peregrine’s clean room. Griffin will be there soon. Astrobiotic will also be working with University of Pittsburgh academic researchers to develop new software that can support lunar landings and Earth orbiting satellites. At least 40 local contractors and subcontractors are participating in the development of Peregrine and Griffin, spawning a sort of mini-version of Florida’s famed space coast in a formerly sooty steel city.

“I like to call us the blue collar space company,” says Chapla, “because we built this through hard work and grit and have turned Pittsburgh into a new center for space innovation.”

Peregrine is not the only one in the CLPS list. NASA has six CLPS mission scheduled for 2022, 2023 and the total program budgeted at $2.6 million. Indeed, late this year, not long after Peregrine launches, Houston-based Intuitive Machines plans to launch its own spacecraft with its own collection of NASA science instruments to a spot between the moon’s Sea of Serenity and Sea of Crises in the lunar northeast.

Whether NASA will indeed succeed in getting humans back onto the moon’s surface in the mid-2020s is impossible to say. But the infrastructure and experiments needed to make landings on—and the ultimate settlement of—the moon possible are already set to fly. And first out of the chute will be Pittsburgh’s Peregrine—a homegrown machine from an unlikely place, getting ready to make an industrial city’s mark on another world.

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