Rendering of the new building courtesy of Astrobotic.

A robotics company that seeks to make outer space accessible to the world will open a North Side headquarters and mission control center that could become the epicenter for America’s return to the moon.

Astrobotic Technology is renovating a former post office on North Lincoln Avenue in Manchester and will invest more than $6.5 million in the project. It hopes to open a portion of the 47,000-square-foot headquarters in May to build and test its Peregrine lunar lander.

The building will have cleanrooms to assemble spacecraft, test facilities, labs, a payload operations room and a mission control center. The company will be able to design, build and test lunar landers and rovers at the site, and then operate their missions from Pittsburgh, CEO John Thornton says in the company’s announcement.

“We’re really psyched. We’ll be controlling landers and rovers on the moon from Manchester,” Thornton says.
The company chose the site because the former government building is solidly built and its previous tenants had a cleanroom and wired the building for high-speed internet.

The Peregrine Lander. Rendering courtesy of Astrobotic.

It’s also close to the Carnegie Science Center and Heinz Field — two Pittsburgh landmarks. Thornton hopes Astrobotic’s mission control center could become a third.

“We are thrilled to be moving into Manchester, excited for the neighborhood and being in the North Side, a strong cultural area of Pittsburgh,” he says. “We’re looking to grow there and call that our home.”

Astrobotic charges governments, companies, universities and nonprofits $1.2 million per kilogram to send hardware (things like science instruments and exploration devices) to the moon. For a much more affordable price, starting at around $400, the company is also offering people a chance to immortalize personal keepsakes on the moon as part of its first mission by ordering a DHL MoonBox kit.

People are sending all kinds of things, Thornton says: a time capsule, inscriptions, family photos, artwork — even pet hair from a dog who died.

“It connects people’s stories with the moon,” Thornton explains, and “connects us no matter where we are on Earth.”

In November, Astrobotic and Bosch announced the launch of SoundSee, a device that uses artificial intelligence to detect any mechanical problems or maintenance needed on the International Space Station. Developed by Bosch, the lunchbox-sized SoundSee module floats through the space station.

William “Red” Whittaker, the founder of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, spun out Astrobotic in 2007 to encourage planetary exploration, science, resource utilization, mining and even tourism. This year, NASA awarded Astrobotic a $79.5 million contract to deliver payloads to the moon in 2021.

Astrobotic will communicate with their moon landers from their mission control center on the North Side. Rendering courtesy of Astrobotic.

The company grew from 20 employees to 62 this year and is advertising jobs on its website. It will receive tax credits from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development if it adds 95 jobs as part of the headquarters development. Astrobotic has more than 30 prior and ongoing NASA and commercial technology contracts, a commercial partnership with Airbus and a corporate sponsorship with DHL.

The cleanroom and lab space at the new headquarters will support up to four lunar lander missions simultaneously. Labs will include environmental test facilities designed to simulate lunar and launch vehicle environments, a machine shop for parts manufacturing, a fluids lab for propulsion testing, and a lab for battery assembly and testing.

It also will have space to test drive mobile rovers.

Finished lunar landers and rovers will be transported to Cape Canaveral. Following any launch, Astrobotic will operate the mission from Pittsburgh, including the landing, communications and moon rover operations.

Though the new HQ won’t open until 2020, missions are full speed ahead at Astrobotic.

“We are well on our way already,” Thornton says.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.