Red Whittaker

A gutsy little robot named Andy is about to take one giant leap for robotkind.

CMU rolled out the four-wheeling moon rover this week. If all goes as planned, Andy, named for the university namesakes Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, will be the first U.S.-built bot on the moon.

Andy will be joining the Astrobotic-CMU team in the global race to the moon for the Google Lunar XPrize and the $20 million-plus purse. To win, a team must be first to land on the moon, successfully drive a robot for at least 500 meters and transmit a “mooncast” back to earth. While no one is saying, all odds are on Andy and Astrobotic as the frontrunner in the race.

But Andy has bigger plans than just crossing the finish line. “If we’re on the moon anyway, we’re going to do something while we’re up there,” says Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, the founder and director of the CMU Field Robotics Center. For several decades, his bucket list has included putting a robot on the moon.

Once the race is wrapped up, Andy will move on to more challenging terrain. The 4-foot high rover, built to nimbly scale and navigate the rocky terrain, will explore the recently discovered lunar caves, pits and polar ice that were discovered by a Japanese satellite in 2009. The pits–one is the size of Heinz Field–are believed to contain caves that scientists speculate may be the perfect shelter for a future moon base for human habitation.

The caves are key because they will provide shelter from the deadly radiation of the sun, freezing temperatures and flying micrometeorites, says John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic. When Astrobotic’s lunar rover lands on the moon, it will target the largest of these cave entryways, an area called Lacus Mortis or “Lake of Death.”

“We’re hitting a lot of birds with one stone,” says Thornton. “On our first mission we hope to win the Google Lunar XPrize. And we hope to explore these caves and learn if it is a good place to shuttle humans. We need to learn to camp in our own background, the moon, before we go on to Mars.”

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.