Griffin lander over the moon. Photo by Astrobotic.

NASA isn’t all about putting men on the moon anymore. And for Pittsburgh, that’s a good thing.

In the last 20 years, NASA has moved away from human-piloted space flight to focus on exploring the cosmos via robotic rovers and satellites. At the same time, the federal government has allowed more private companies to enter the outer space business, a trend that began under President Obama and is likely to continue under President Trump.

Pittsburgh is very much involved, thanks to our role as one of the nation’s emerging high-tech innovation hubs.

In the last month, the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh received a $750,000 grant from NASA to study 3D printing and manufacturing techniques. Meanwhile, the Strip District-based robotics company Astrobotic received official permission from NASA to be one of a handful of private companies permitted to deliver payloads to the moon.

3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) has the potential to produce many of the complex components needed for space travel at a much greater scale and at a fraction of the cost of current production techniques.

But the technology is still young, and the project leads say their work is meant to close some of the technical gaps that remain.

According to a statement released in November, researchers at QuesTek Innovations and the Swanson School will use the NASA grant to synthesize and design a “super alloy” that is malleable enough for 3D printing, but strong enough to withstand the extreme temperatures of space travel.

If that work is successful, it could help change perceptions of 3D printing within organizations like NASA.

Because as promising as 3D printing is to modern manufacturing, “its acceptance by major commercial or government industries like NASA comes down to a lack of confidence in the quality of the part,” says Jiadong Gong, a technical fellow at QuesTek and the lead investigator on the project.

A “super alloy” created in Pittsburgh could be a game changer. And it’s possible that components built from it could end up on a landing module designed by Astrobotic. On Nov. 29, Astrobotic was one of nine companies to receive a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract with NASA. The contract runs for the next 10 years.

Astrobotic was originally spun off from Carnegie Mellon University in 2007 to develop technologies that would make space travel more affordable. In addition to previous support from NASA, the company also has clients like Airbus and DHL.

According to NASA, these CLPS contracts are the first step in what will become a series of public-private partnerships aimed at establishing permanent research stations on the moon by the end of the decade.

“This is a pivotal moment for our company and most importantly, our country. Astrobotic was built for this opportunity, and we stand ready to lead America back to the moon,” says Astrobotic CEO John Thornton. “We are eager to add NASA to our existing manifest of commercial customers, and get America back on the surface as soon as possible.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.