In a nondescript building on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District, Astrobotic is engineering its way to winning the Google Lunar X Prize, a race to the moon with a $30 million purse.
Winner aside, it will be the first private moon landing ever, a moon landing not done by a world power and the first to explore recently discovered lunar caves beneath the moon’s surface that may one day offer scientists a ready-made shelter against the lunar elements. It is also sure to spark a resurgence of interest in space travel.
But winning won’t be easy. If all goes as planned, a Falcon 9 spacecraft will launch in 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and carry the Astrobotic lunar rover along with those of other teams from around the world who are vying for the X Prize. Once the rocket reaches the moon, John Thornton, CEO, will take the reins of the lunar rover and the race will be on.
One of three siblings in a family of engineers, Thornton graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and found himself choosing between a very attractive position at Boeing and working with a startup that is aiming for the moon. Thornton joined Astrobotic as a mechanical engineer and quickly rose to leadership of the company, taking the job of CEO after former CEO David Gump stepped down.
Not everyone thought it was the right decision, Thornton says referring to the many people who think the idea is crazy. “When we land I will have a lot of ‘I told you so’s,” he notes.
Winning the prize is only the first salvo in the company’s mission to become one of the most successful private space companies. To fund the exorbitant cost of the mission, Astrobotic has evolved to become an ambitious space company that will take payloads to the moon. Just like UPS takes payloads on earth. So far, the company has three missions planned—the Lunar X Prize flight, another in 2018 and in 2020—each one with a capacity of over half a ton, over 27 times more than its closest competitor.
Have $2 million? That will allow you to send about a 2-pound package. You might think the price is high, but according to Thornton “there is tremendous demand for what we are offering and I think that is counterintuitive for a lot of folks.”
Who sends payloads to space? For one, NASA. Astrobotic has already won close to 20 contracts from the space agency. Other space agencies are also prospective clients and so are space agencies from emerging nations such as South Korea, Malaysia, Hungary, Chile and Brazil.
With 2015 fast approaching, Astrobotic has just completed its most important technological milestone: proving that it can actually land on the moon. The trip aboard the Falcon 9 will take about 4 days from Earth to lunar orbit before landing.
“It’s all propulsive—there is no wind—and we need to make sure we land accurately because we are aiming for the hole. We also need to make sure we don’t land on a rock or slope or any other local feature that could tip the lander or make it a bad landing.”
By “hole,” Thornton is referring to Lacus Mortis, or “Lake of Death” – not the friendliest sounding landing spot. Why Lacus Mortis? It is a newly discovered cave-like structure that affords some relief from the searing and freezing temperatures and radiation from the sun. Think natural habitat.
Right now, space race odds makers put Astrobotic in the number 2 seed, behind Team Barcelona. But Thornton is confident Astrobotic will win the race. “First, we have the best business plan and the best strategy to raise money. X Prize doesn’t pay more than it takes to get there. Our approach is sound and very profitable.”
So sound, in fact, that other X Prize teams are hitching a ride. When they arrive on the moon, the race to the finish will be something of a Nascar race, Thornton says.
Thornton is working hard toward that day. “This is my love. This is what I do. This is me at its core. If we land on the moon, it will be the perfect exclamation point in our transformation from steel to technology.”
John Thornton will talk about Astrobotic at “What’s NEXT for Tech” on Thursday September 11 at AlphaLab Gear.