How Pittsburgh Is Leading the U.S. Back to the Moon
Thu, June 23, 2022 at 10:36 AM·11 min read
The Peregrine lander in its clean room in Astrobotic's Pittsburgh headquarters Credit - Astrobotic
It’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. It would mark the first time the U.S. has put metal on the moon since the soft touchdown of Apollo 17, just shy of 50 years ago.
The moon has been on NASA’s mind a lot lately. The space agency is promising that its Artemis program will have astronauts back on the lunar surface by the middle of this decade. Unlike the Apollo crews and their brief flags-and-footprints visits, however, the Artemis crews will ultimately be establishing a long-term presence at fixed lunar bases. But well-supplied bases don’t build and equip themselves—and they don’t come cheap, especially considering NASA’s always tight budget.
Enter the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. 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. The CLPS companies are contracted to build spacecraft that can do jobs as diverse as scouting for water ice deposits on the moon that can be used for drinking, breathable air, and rocket fuel; studying the radiation of the lunar environment to determine the hazard levels for long-duration crews; and ferrying up power-generating solar panels as well as construction material for lunar greenhouses and even habitats. International and other commercial partners could also pay for the privilege of flying their own payloads aboard the CLPS missions, sweetening the financial pot for the companies. Plus, CLPS contractors own the rights to any ships they design, allowing them to build more for the private sector, should any other customers beyond NASA come calling.
Fourteen companies, including giants like Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, and Blue Origin have been selected for CLPS contracts, but it is little Astrobotic that is set to be first out of the gate. It is an improbable pick. Never mind SpaceX and its 12,000 employees, or Lockheed Martin with its 114,000. At last count Astrobotic had just 169 workers (though they boast that they have 11 new jobs opening soon). But the 15-year-old company is doing a lot with a 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.”
JOE ZEFF DESIGN
Astrobotic’s upcoming landing on the moon has its roots in a time the company failed to do just that. In 2007, Google announced it was offering a prize of $30 million to the first private company that could build and launch a rover capable of landing softly on the lunar surface, driving at least 500 meters, and sending back pictures and video of its travels. The so-called Google X-Prize was intended to stimulate invention and 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.”
What earned Astrobotic not only inclusion in the CLPS program but the honor of going first is the nimbleness and capability of the Peregrine and the speed with which the company has built it. The spacecraft, which is compact compared to the rovers NASA sends to Mars, nonetheless has enough room on board for its two dozen different payloads. In addition to the German, Mexican, and Carnegie Mellon contributions, the 11 NASA instruments include a neutron spectrometer to search for evidence of water ice on or near the surface; a flux magnetometer to study energy and particle pathways moving throughout the lunar environment; a near-infrared spectrometer that will search for methane and carbon dioxide near the surface that, like water ice, could be used for fuel and breathable air; and a laser reflector, similar to the ones left on the moon by Apollo astronauts, off of which astronomers on Earth can bounce laser beams to precisely measure the distance between the Earth and the moon, and even study such phenomena 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.”
Designing and building the spacecraft has been one thing. 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. In the Apollo days, astronauts traveled an as-the-crow flies route to the moon, with the powerful upper stage of the Saturn V rocket blasting them out of Earth orbit on a direct moonward trajectory, delivering them to their destination in just three days. For uncrewed spacecraft without as prodigious a rocket as the Saturn V, things are slower.
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. In addition to water ice on the lunar surface, caves are perhaps the second most prized lunar features, since they may provide spots for early astronauts to build sealed habitats, protected from dangerous radiation coming from space. A species that long ago lived as cave people on Earth could repeat those humble beginnings on the moon.
“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. Spacecraft like the 45-year-old Voyagers do survive the deep cold of deep space with the help of nuclear-fueled radiothermal generators, but it is the rare mission that carries them, mostly because of the dangers inherent in 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.
Impressive as Peregrine is, it is not the only lunar spacecraft Astrobotic is building for NASA. The company has won a total of $350 million in contract awards from the space agency and nearly $200 million of that funding is going to build another, larger ship the company plans to launch in 2023 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Dubbed the Griffin lander, after the mythical four-legged flying creature, the spacecraft measures 3.7 m (12 ft) in width and length and stands 2.4 m (8 ft.) tall. It is headed for the south lunar pole where water ice is known to exist in permanently shadowed craters, and where astronauts could also set up 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. The company is opening what it has dubbed its Moonshot Museum adjacent to its headquarters, in partnership with the existing Carnegie Science Center and planetarium. The new facility will not only include familiar space museum exhibits, but will also feature a large window looking into the clean room where Peregrine now sits and where Griffin will soon be. Astrobiotic is also joining hands with academic researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to seed the development of new software for lunar landers as well as 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 and Griffin are not alone in the CLPS lineup. NASA so far has six CLPS missions scheduled for 2022 and 2023, with the overall program, running through 2028, budgeted at $2.6 billion. 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.