The race to the moon is on and Astrobotic in Pittsburgh is pulling out with an early lead.

The company, based in the Strip District, has been among the frontrunners in the Google Lunar XPRIZE race to the moon for several years, but recent developments suggest the CMU spinout may have an edge.

The Google XPRIZE, first announced in 2007, pits scientists from around the world against one another in a race to the moon for a $30 million purse.

But with the exorbitant cost of just getting there, and requirements that involve building the necessary equipment to land on the moon, explore the moon’s surface and relay high-definition footage back to Earth, many in the race have developed payload-to-the-moon businesses to finance the mission.

“The XPrize for us is a catalyst and a way to drive sales early on,” says John Thornton, CEO. “It’s certainly an important part of the mission, but the business is driving it and will be driving it in the future.”

Astrobotic is expanding its footprint in the Strip District, more than doubling its existing space, to make room for 47 people. The company currently employs 14 and is hiring.

Most recently, NASA selected the company as a partner in the Lunar CATALYST initiative in the development of a cost-efficient commercial robotic lunar lander that will enable the delivery of payloads to the moon’s surface.

Astrobotic has won 17 contracts with NASA to date and has raised funding through angel and private investors.

The company is now bringing on paying payload customers. Some are companies with science and exploration objectives. Another is a company, Celestis, which has reserved space to transport human ashes to the moon surface.

Earlier this year, Astrobotic cut a deal with Astroscale in Singapore to transport the popular Asian sports drink, Pocari Sweat, to the lunar surface. It will be the first commercial beverage to touch down on the moon, says Thornton.

Astrobotic has completed the guidance and navigation systems for its moon lander, which will autonomously determine obstacles and pinpoint a safe landing spot.

The company has also agreed to fly several other XPRIZE teams to the moon aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, which is scheduled to take off from the Kennedy Space Center in October of 2015.

This means all the competitors, who will pay Astrobotic for space aboard their flight, will land on the moon at the same time. At that point, the race will begin.

“When we get to the surface (of the moon), we deploy, the green flag goes up and everyone goes,” says Thornton. “It will be incredibly exciting,” he says. “The first live moon race. Like Nascar on the moon.”

Deb Smit

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...