Though the story of Pittsburgh’s rebirth after the catastrophic collapse of the steel industry is finally becoming common knowledge within America—overseas, it’s much less familiar.
This, too, is beginning to change.
Last week, 33 ambassadors from around the world left the palace intrigue of Washington, D.C. for a short fact-finding mission to the exotic, colorful interior of America. The State Department’s “Experience America” program brings the world’s top diplomats on short junkets to American cities every year, and this week Pittsburgh was their destination.
One of their first stops was to Astrobotic in the Strip District on Monday morning. There, engineers design and build robotic spacecraft, Moon landers and Moon rovers.
After a short presentation by CEO John Thornton, ambassadors from Iceland, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Austria, Malaysia, Kazakhstan and other countries convened in a high-ceilinged garage where several of Astrobotic’s vehicles sat. This included a rugged rover with clumps of mud still stuck to its metal wheels, and a mock-up of a landing craft designed to test payload capacities.
Astrobotic grew out of the robotics expertise at CMU and has found a niche doing a very specific and difficult task—putting things into space and on the Moon for governments, companies and universities, at a very reasonable price (to some): “$1.2 million per kilo to the Moon.”
Like a miniature United Nations, the flags of the countries Astrobotic is helping hang from above: Italy, Britain, Germany, Mexico, Japan.
“We’d love to get your flags up here as well,” said Thornton.
Ambassador Ashok Mirpuri of Singapore, who has been on several of these “Experience America” city visits, seemed particularly interested, cornering several Astrobotic engineers and programmers to ask pointed questions.
“It’s an opportunity to get out of the Beltway, and showcase new technology,” said Mirpuri. “And an opportunity to look at collaborations and possibilities for our own countries.”
Singapore is a wealthy, relatively high-tech country—but small, Mirpuri noted. They have launched satellites into space—“but we’ve not yet been to the Moon,” he said. “The price is very compelling!”
“This is very interesting,” said Ambassador Geir Haarde of Iceland.
This is the second such trip for Haarde and his wife, Inga Jona Thordardsdottir (a former member of Reykjavik’s City Council).
“We went to Houston last time,” says Thordardsdottir. “We went to NASA. They were practicing ‘moonwalking,’ which was quite interesting.”
It may not even be their last visit to Pittsburgh.
“We’re starting a flight to Pittsburgh (via Icelandic budget airline WOW Air) in a few weeks,” noted Thordardsdottir.
Other stops on the tour included receptions at the Senator John Heinz History Center and the Andy Warhol Museum and visits to the National Robotics Engineering Center and Uber Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville, and the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh. They also went to Heinz Field and up the Duquesne Incline.
Of course, the idea was to get these countries to invest in America, and Pittsburgh in particular, which wasn’t lost on these diplomats.
“The story of the city’s rebirth and as a center for innovation was the primary reason for developing a program here,” noted Rosemarie Pauli, Acting Chief of Protocol of the United States.
However, that didn’t preclude the ambassadors—and many of their spouses—from having fun. The interest in space is pretty universal, judging by a number of selfies taken with various Moon-bound vehicles at Astrobotic.