Space Commerce

Pittsburgh – How a Steel City is Transforming Into a Space City

By Sharmila Kuthunur
November 29, 2023
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Pittsburgh – How a Steel City is Transforming Into a Space City
Illustration of Astrobotic HQ in Pittsburgh.
Image credit: Astrobotic.

Pittsburgh has long been known as the Steel City after the industry that built it. Over 40 years after the steel hub collapsed, a new one is taking root: space.

At the center of the growing space base is Astrobotic, the first major flagship program in Pennsylvania and what many consider the start of a new space ecosystem in the state. Founded in 2007 as a startup of two, the company now employs about 200 people, has two fully funded Moon missions, and has secured a total of $450 million worth of contracts with the space industry. The company announced earlier this month that it is investing $20 million to expand its Pittsburgh headquarters, including purchasing and renovating a five-story, 46,000-square-foot building in order to create a space campus.

“The expansion will create 283 new jobs, including mechanical, electrical, and software engineers, technicians, and support staff,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told SpaceRef. “The renovation itself is slated to bring 60+ construction jobs to the area.”

The company also recently received a $4 million investment from the state government to support its work “to build a space campus and make Pittsburgh a leader in the growing space industry,” Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro said at an event in Pittsburgh’s Moonshot Museum earlier this month. “My administration is working hard to help companies like Astrobotic grow and thrive so they can continue to focus on making history – and we’ll continue to invest in their success to ensure the next innovation happens here in Pennsylvania.”

First commercial Moon landing

Next month, a Moon lander built by the company will attempt to become the first commercial mission to land on a world outside Earth. Ferrying 21 payloads from six countries including the US, Hungary, Japan, and Seychelles in East Africa, and several individuals around the globe, the lander Peregrine is poised to be the first US soft-landing since the Apollo program ended 50 years ago.

“In the past, lunar missions and in-field lunar science could only be carried out by the wealthiest governments – and we’re changing that,” said Thornton.

The Peregrine lunar lander will attempt to land at the Gruithuisen Domes on the moon no earlier than December 24, 2023. Image credit: Astrobotic.

The two-day launch window opens on December 24. The Peregrine mission, set to take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, is exciting in its own right. The missions’ landing site, Gruithuisen Domes, is a bit of a scientific mystery, and researchers are eager to have the chance to study it and hopefully learn how it formed. The domes are thought to have manifested from magmas rich in granite-like silica, which on Earth erupt from volcanoes that formed in the presence of water and plate tectonics. There is growing evidence for the former ingredient but not for the latter on the Moon, so these domes are an interesting scientific destination worth visiting to study their rock samples.

Pittsburgh – Space HQ

The mission is also exciting because it will be the first to be controlled not from Houston, home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, as commonly assumed, “but from the North Side of Pittsburgh,” Matt Smith, the Chief Growth Officer at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development who oversees the economic development work of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, told SpaceRef. “I think that’s a great testament to the innovation that’s occurring here.”

“Now, when a third, fourth or fifth grader thinks about space and thinks about all of its possibilities, they’re not going to have to relocate to Houston or Florida or California to do that really exciting work,” he added. “They can do that work right from Pittsburgh’s North Side.”

The space economy in Pittsburgh has been accelerating in recent years, thanks in part to leading robotics programs at the Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and more recently thanks to investments from Astrobotic and another company called ProtoInnovations, which is developing software to help a NASA rover better navigate on the Moon. 

Smith said he sees Astrobotic as “a really strong magnet” and hopes its growth will bring similar companies and more federal investments to the Pittsburgh region, as well as help in both attracting and retaining talent in the area. Working in the space industry demands a diverse skill set and disciplines from engineering and robotics to analytical toolkit for complex computing, Thornton explained, some of which is already in place thanks to Pittsburgh’s role in the Industrial Revolution.

“Pittsburgh has a lot to offer in this regard, which is why Astrobotic continues to grow here,” said Thornton.

He added the company is currently constructing its next Moon-landing mission, Griffin, which will deliver NASA’s water-hunting VIPER rover to the lunar south pole late next year. 

Further down the pipeline, his team is developing technologies to help future astronauts survive frigid nights on the Moon. One of them is essentially an electrical grid aimed at generating continuous and reliable power on the Moon. The technology, designated LunaGrid, “will be deployed this decade to support NASA’s Artemis program and commercial users,” Thornton said. “With continuous and reliable power on the Moon, we can support sustained astronaut presence, long-term science investigations, and pursuit of lunar resources for the benefit of humankind.”

The first step of this system, LunaGrid-Lite, will be demonstrated in 2026 with a Moon mission “that will transmit power from a lunar lander to a tethered CubeRover,” he added. 

A second such technology is a wireless charging system to transmit power from a company lander on the moon to rovers, habitats and other infrastructure. Thornton said the system passed a series of tests in June 2022 that proved it can function and provide sufficient power for technologies to survive one night on the moon, which is 14 Earth days.

”We really feel like this is our time to shine,” said Smith.

Sharmila Kuthunur.

Sharmila is a science journalist covering the cosmos. Her work has appeared in, Astronomy Magazine, EarthSky, and the Indian print magazine Science Reporter. She received a master's degree in journalism from Northeastern University in 2022.