Griffin lander. Image courtesy of Astrobotic.

It’s a mission that could unlock the secrets of interplanetary space travel for future deep space explorers. And it’s starting right here in Pittsburgh, at Astrobotic’s mission control on the North Side.

Astrobotic has been awarded $199.5 million for its Griffin lander to deliver NASA’s VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) to the South Pole of the Moon in 2023.

“If we can find water at the poles of the moon, that’s a huge, huge discovery for science, and future commerce, and future exploration of the moon,” says Astrobotic CEO John Thornton. “Water off-Earth is very valuable because it can be turned into rocket fuel.”

If they find water and figure out its concentration and how to extract it, Thornton says, “we can potentially turn the moon into a refueling depot, where spacecraft can go back and forth on the moon and even refuel for deep space destinations like Mars, and beyond.”

It’s a long, long way to the moon, but Astrobotic has it all mapped out.

“Griffin will get to the moon first with a launch from a commercial partner that we have yet to select,” says Thornton. “That will get us up to space. Our job from there is to make sure that our trajectory is lined up with the moon. We fire engines when we get close to the moon to drop into lunar orbit, and then we descend down to the surface for a soft landing at the (South) Pole of the moon.

“We’ll be tracking the mission and communicating with the lander from mission control here in Pittsburgh. That’s going to be located at our new headquarters on the North Side, right near Heinz Field.”

By 2023, the Griffin landing will actually be the third mission to the moon for Astrobotic. Their Peregrine lander — a $79.5 million NASA contract secured last year — will be going up next year, on a ULA launch vehicle flying out of Florida, carrying payloads for NASA and other commercial partners. Astrobotic’s own MoonRanger rover will be delivered to the moon by another company’s lander in 2022.

Griffin lander and VIPER rover. Image courtesy of Astrobotic.

Astrobotic offers delivery of payloads to the surface of the moon at $1.2 million per kilogram for scientific equipment and the like. But they also have a program called DHL Moonbox, that lets anyone send things to the moon for a few hundred dollars.

They have collected everything from family photos to hair from a family pet that died. “It’s just anything that you might want to send up that means something to you, and that you’d want to be forever connected to the moon.”

Astrobotic was originally spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 by robotics pioneer William “Red” Whittaker. They’ve come a long way, and have a long way to go.

“Our goal as a company is to make space accessible to the world,” says Thornton. “We are currently 74 employees. This contract ($199.5 million) will push us over 100. The contract itself is a big milestone for the company because of the extra importance of the mission. It’s a precursor to NASA’s plans to send humans to the surface of the moon, the Artemis program.”

“To be a part of that history, right here in Pittsburgh, is truly an amazing feeling. It’s a really great honor that we can be a part of something this big and this historic for space. We are so grateful that NASA believes in us for this mission, and we’re so excited to make them, and our nation, proud.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.