Beyond Prime: Inside the Race to Deliver Shipments to the Moon

Beyond Prime: Inside the Race to Deliver Shipments to the Moon

In early 2019, Israeli organization SpaceIL launched a small spacecraft named Beresheet from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a simple mission: to become the first private spacecraft to land on the moon.

On April 11, as Beresheet’s landing was being livestreamed across the world, John Thornton, the chief executive of a private space company called Astrobotic, gathered his team around a projector in the corner of his office in downtown Pittsburgh. Thornton had mixed feelings about the landing. As someone who has spent his entire career advocating for a return to the moon, he was happy for SpaceIL. But he’d also hoped that Astrobotic would do it first.

Beresheet’s two-month voyage from Earth’s orbit to the moon had been smooth, and there was every indication that the dishwasher-sized lander was going to touch down within the boundaries of Mare Serenitatis, a volcanic basin on the northern side of the moon. But several minutes before the spacecraft was due to land, one of Thornton’s colleagues sensed trouble. “We could tell by the faces of the people at [Beresheet] mission control that something was off,” Thornton said.

A few moments later, Beresheet’s main engine failed. When it came back online, mission control had lost communication with the craft. All signs pointed to a crash landing. Before Beresheet went offline, it pinged back a richly detailed photo of the lunar surface.

“They got really close,” Thornton said a few hours later. “They didn’t make it, but they still proved that you don’t have to be a superpower to get to the moon. You can still get up there and have a darn good shot at making that landing. And that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

SpaceIL is going to try again. But first, it has to build a new lander. With the Israeli company out of commission for the foreseeable future, Astrobotic is next in line to become the world’s first private company to land on the moon.

“We are confident and excited that we’re going to be next,” Thornton said. “We can learn from [Beresheet] and get it right.”

With just 19 employees, Astrobotic’s ambitions are ripped from a science fiction novel. Thornton and his team hope to establish a courier service to the moon — the first of its kind — with regular, possibly annual, missions on the back of rockets from companies like United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. Say you want to send scientific equipment, a time capsule, or your grandmother’s ashes to the lunar surface, but you’re not NASA or Jeff Bezos, so you pay someone to arrange it all for you. Thornton wants to be that someone.

Astrobotic’s first mission to the moon is planned for the beginning of 2021 and will use the company’s Peregrine lunar lander — a sort of interplanetary courier van that measures 8 by 6 feet and resembles a giant kettle-shaped barbecue grill. It can carry up to 198 pounds of cargo.

So far, Astrobotic has 12 customers with a range of pedigrees. NASA has a contract with Astrobotic, as does Agencia Espacial Mexicana, Mexico’s government space agency. Caterpillar, the manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, is now an official partner, as is German logistics giant DHL. After Astrobotic touches down on the moon, DHL will be able to add off-world shipping options to its website.

Then there are the more unlikely contracts. One company wants to send human remains to the moon — creatively referred to as “space burials” — and another plans to send a capsule containing messages from more than 80,000 children from around the world. There’s Carnegie Mellon’s MoonArk, a cross between a time capsule and a museum piece that contains hundreds of images, poems, objects, and art pieces from more than 250 collaborators. (Among some of the weirder contents of the MoonArk are DNA from a genetically modified goat and a vial containing the blood of 33 artists.)

If Astrobotic succeeds, it could pave the way for larger lunar exploration efforts, making it possible for space agencies, corporations, and, ultimately, individuals to access the moon in radically new ways. That might include lunar bases where spacecraft refuel before going off to explore deeper corners of the solar system, or mining, manufacturing, and telecommunication operations, all working around the clock to extract and repurpose lunar resources. Thornton wants to do for the moon what the railroad did for the United States: open up a fast, safe, and reliable route that will help establish a pipeline of goods and, later, humans. All of this, Thornton says, is possible.

But first thing’s first.

“Right now, all our efforts are focused on one thing: landing safely on the moon,” Sharad Bhaskaran, mission director at Astrobotic, told me. “Everything else has to wait.”

The moon is not a terribly exciting place. The moon is nothing like Earth. It is resource poor and was probably never able to support life. But the moon does have a singular advantage as a destination for space exploration: It’s only three days away.

That makes the moon a good test run ahead of a Martian odyssey and voyages beyond. And the moon may not be quite as barren as it seems. Orbital data shows deposits of lunar ice, which can be used for life support and radiation protection. The moon’s regolith — the layer of dust and soil that covers solid rock on terrestrial planets — could potentially be harnessed for the construction of long-term human habitats. There may even be resources that are exportable back to Earth, such as the isotope helium-3, which could be used in nuclear fusion, as well as palladium, iridium, and platinum — metals left over from asteroid collisions. If there’s enough water on the moon, the planet could become a refueling station for interplanetary travel. Launching missions from the moon using lunar-made fuel would be easier and less costly than taking off from Earth.

“We are talking about more than just exploration. We are talking about development,” says Andy Aldrin, an associate professor at the Florida Institute of Technology (and the son of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin). “There is the possibility that lunar resources could be used in ways that could fundamentally change the way we do space.”

Clive R. Neal, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Notre Dame and emeritus chair of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, says perfecting lunar space travel is key to building a robust space economy. “And without that,” he says, “human space exploration will not be sustainable.”

Thornton knows all this. “It’s not that Mars is not going to happen someday,” he says. “It’s just that the moon is a great practice ground for how to do it properly.” Even Elon Musk, an outspoken advocate of Martian colonization, recently admitted, “We’ll probably have a base on the moon before going to Mars.”

The human race has been to the moon before, but, as John M. Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, put it, “We didn’t really do much when we were there.” The United States and the Soviet Union landed on the moon nearly 20 times between 1966 and 1976, with six of those missions — all by the Americans — manned. In the intervening 43 years, several space agencies — including Japan and the European Space Agency — have sent the occasional spacecraft to orbit the moon, but the first craft to actually touch down on the moon since the Apollo era was China’s Chang’e 3, in 2013.

After years of neglect, the moon is now a hot ticket. This past January, China made history by becoming the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. India is planning its own lunar landing for later this year. And now the Americans are looking moonward again.

Experts say that apart from the Kennedy administration, no president has been as invested in getting the United States back to the moon as President Trump. In December 2017, Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, signaling an immediate American return to the moon, followed by a manned mission to Mars. “It was like, get to the moon, and do it quickly,” Logsdon told me.

Trump also reinstated the National Space Council and directed NASA to invest in commercial partnerships with the private sector as a way to speed things up. Last August, NASA announced its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which asked private companies to submit proposals for “delivery services for small lunar payloads.”

The idea is to create a fleet of competing commercial companies that can provide a delivery channel to the moon — meaning NASA can get up there swifter and for a lot less money than if it was doing the whole thing itself. A shuttle service is widely seen as the first step toward colonization.

“This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters earlier this year. “We’re not going to leave flags and footprints and then come home to not go back for another 50 years.”

Astrobotic is one of nine companies NASA picked for its CLPS program. Earlier this year, NASA revealed its first task order — a list of payloads it wants to send to the moon — for which the companies now have to compete. NASA says it will announce who has won the first contract in May.

Thornton is convinced Astrobotic has a leg up on the competition. For one thing, the company has been around since 2007. By comparison, two of the companies on NASA’s CLPS list — Orbit Beyond, from New Jersey, and Firefly Aerospace, from Texas — were both founded just last year, with the latter focused primarily on developing rocket technology. And while other CLPS companies are also utilizing a pay-to-ride business model, Astrobotic is the only one with a public list of multiple paying customers. Even industry heavyweight Lockheed Martin is playing its cards close to its chest. “We cannot share any customers at this time, but we do plan to fly commercial payloads that enable revenue generation,” Joe Landon, vice president of advanced programs at Lockheed Martin, told me. With no one else willing to spill, Thornton insists Astrobotic currently has around 90% of the market share in the lunar delivery space.

Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels and a well-respected venture capitalist who has invested in space startups such as SpaceX, put money into Astrobotic after hearing Thornton’s business plan. “We got to know the market really well, and it became pretty clear who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t,” Anderson says.

Last year, NASA signaled its faith in the company’s efforts when the agency awarded the company one of three $10 million “tipping point” contracts for developing technologies meant to advance space exploration. The only other two companies that received 7-digit contracts were ULA and Blue Origin.

“When I found out, I couldn’t believe it,” Anderson told me. “I mean, you’ve got ULA, you’ve got Jeff Bezos, and then you’ve got our little moon landing company in Pittsburgh.”

Astrobotic occupies two floors of a red brick building in downtown Pittsburgh, next door to the Pittsburgh Opera headquarters and across the road from Edgar’s Best Tacos, a shabby cantina that does, apparently, serve the best tacos in town. The office is a good imitation of a 1970s-era accounting firm, with threadbare carpet and gray cubicles. The only evidence that anything exciting is happening here is the occasional engineering blueprint and, in the case of one particular desk, a healthy dose of Star Wars memorabilia.

Most of the action takes place in what’s known as the high bay, a two-story warehouse located on the building’s ground floor. That’s where the Astrobotic engineering team is building the Peregrine lander.

Although it may look rather odd, Peregrine is an engineering marvel. On its first mission, Peregrine will ride into orbit on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, one of a growing slate of commercially available and affordable spacecraft. The lander’s design also makes it suitable to hitch a ride aboard ULA’s Vulcan rocket, as well as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

About two hours after Atlas 5 clears the atmosphere, Peregrine will detach and float out into space. The lander will then be entirely on its own. One of Peregrine’s five engines will activate, pushing the lander outside Earth’s orbit and putting it on a trajectory for the moon. This will all happen in the span of a few hours. Eighteen days later — Peregrine will travel slowly to save on fuel — the craft will prepare for landing by engaging its propulsion system in a series of braking maneuvers. Meanwhile, an automated landing system will help guide the craft to the surface. Each of Peregrine’s four legs has been designed to compress on touchdown in order to absorb the shock of landing and stabilize the craft.

It’s unclear what went wrong during Beresheet’s landing. Thornton suspects there was a malfunction with its inertial measurement unit, which communicates the acceleration and rotation status of the spacecraft, potentially causing the engines to turn off. Once Thornton confirms the error, he’ll take a closer look at Peregrine’s landing system to make sure Astrobotic doesn’t make the same mistake.

“Space is an unforgiving environment. Even big, well-funded companies and organizations like NASA make mistakes,” Thornton says of SpaceIL’s mishap. “We have to take this in stride and learn from it — and get it right next time.”

Peregrine is designed as a set of intertwining platforms, or decks, with payloads of varying sizes and weights stacked on top and attached from below like Tetris blocks. Peregrine’s total payload capacity will be 584 pounds, and its first mission will have dedicated space reserved for NASA. Peregrine’s open decks make it easy to stack shipments and for different types of equipment to operate concurrently. For example, a drill might need to be shot straight down into the ground, while an excavator arm might need to deploy sideways.

Some of Peregrine’s payload will remain on board after landing, while the rest will travel across the surface by way of a lunar rover. The mission will have 10 Earth days, or one lunar day, to conduct operations, and then Peregrine will go offline and shut itself down. “We are not designed to survive the lunar night, but [this is] just our first mission,” Bhaskaran says.

Peregrine is being built using predominantly off-the-shelf parts. More than 60 years of space development have made the components that go into a lander like this increasingly cheaper, paving the way for small companies like Astrobotic to enter the increasingly lucrative commercial space industry.

“Everything we did, from our processes to the equipment we used, had to be modified and streamlined to cost roughly $100 million — which is quite a bit less than what NASA would charge to do a mission like this,” says Jeff Hopkins, senior propulsion engineer at Astrobotic.

Relatively speaking, Astrobotic is new to the space game. The company was spun out of Carnegie Mellon in 2007 by Thornton, who was just starting his graduate degree in mechanical engineering, and Red Whittaker, the head of Carnegie Mellon’s Field Robotics Center. The two had met while building Scarab, a NASA robot intended for lunar drilling.

Whittaker, who now serves as Astrobotic’s chairman and chief science officer, had read about the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million competition incentivizing privately funded teams to land a robot on the moon. He called Thornton into his office. “He was like, ‘Do you want to do this with me?’” Thornton recalls. “And I was like, ‘Hell yes.’”

Twenty-nine teams initially registered to compete. By 2017, only five remained. Many dropped out along the way, unable to meet the requirements or realizing they’d never reach their goal. The competition expired in March 2018 with no winner. (SpaceIL, the Israeli company behind Beresheet, was also a former Lunar X Prize competitor.)

Astrobotic dropped out of the competition early, in 2016. Thornton and Whittaker recognized that the timeline was unrealistic, but they also knew they were on their way to building a world-class lunar lander. Thornton took over as CEO and decided to shift the company’s direction from a purely academic pursuit toward a private commercial venture. “We saw the rise of groups like SpaceX and commercial launches, and we thought that we could potentially replicate a similar kind of approach for planetary bodies,” Thornton says.

Thornton decided the ride-sharing model that worked so well for rockets could also work for planetary landers. If companies and government space agencies like NASA were willing to share space on commercial rockets made by private companies, why wouldn’t they also be willing to share space on a lunar lander?

He came up with a simple payment structure for Peregrine: $1.2 million per kilogram to get on board, plus an additional $2 million per kilogram if you wanted a ride on the custom-built rover. Astrobotic would supply propulsion, navigation, power, and communications. But because no one had actually attempted to sell space on a lander before, there was no market for Astrobotic’s product — and, therefore, no customers.

So Thornton started cold-calling. He approached the big private players in the space industry and just about every government space agency in the world. He even approached some of his former competitors in the Google X Prize. “We basically turned the Google X Prize into a market,” Thornton says. “I thought, why don’t we offer rides to other competitors and treat them as customers?” It worked — three of Astrobotic’s current customers are former X Prize competitors.

Since he envisioned Astrobotic as a shipping company, Thornton thought it might be nice to reach out to some actual shippers. He called FedEx, UPS, and DHL. Only DHL bit, and it’s now an official Astrobotic sponsor, with the company’s logo glued to the front of Peregrine. “They can now say that they deliver to the moon,” Thornton jokes.

The partnership with DHL also allowed Astrobotic to open up Peregrine to the wider public through a program called DHL MoonBox. Customers can buy space on the box for as little as $460 for a 0.5-by-0.125-inch capsule that can be filled with a variety of small mementos, like family photos, rings, notes, or family crests. According to Astrobotic, one sentimental family is even sending up a lock of hair belonging to the family dog.

The current version of Peregrine sitting in Astrobotic’s high bay is a mockup built to scale. The real thing won’t be built until much closer to Astrobotic’s first launch, currently scheduled for the first quarter of 2021. The mockup lets Astrobotic show customers how much space is left on the lander and allows engineers to figure out how to attach each payload to Peregrine’s belly.

Sharad Bhaskaran, the mission director, is in charge of the design, development, testing, and ultimately the successful landing of Peregrine on the moon.

“Usually, agencies like NASA know up front what the payloads are going to be and where they’re going to fit on the lander,” Bhaskaran told me. “We obviously find out what our payloads are as customers buy them, so we had to design a lander without predefined boxes for things to fit in.”

Astrobotic is also building a bigger version of Peregrine called Griffin. Measuring 14 by 5 feet, it will be able to carry 1,100 pounds to the lunar surface. Thornton wants to schedule the second mission for a year and a half after the first, and the third mission might come even sooner. If the market picks up and there’s increased demand from customers, Astrobotic could begin flying yearly missions using both the Peregrine and Griffin as soon as 2023.

But for now, Astrobotic’s immediate focus is building the real Peregrine lander. “It’s not like we’ve done this a few times now, so we know what to watch out for,” Bhaskaran told me. “There is no blueprint for how to do any of this. We’re going through this for the first time — and yes, things will go wrong.”

Construction on the lander will begin later this summer. A period of comprehensive testing will come next, followed by payload attachment, more testing, and then, if all goes to plan, the launch.

Should it work, Astrobotic will become the first private company to put a lander on the moon, signaling a new era of space exploration, one in which a small company from Pittsburgh can achieve what was once possible only by government space agencies. In building its railroad to the moon, Astrobotic will be helping humanity take another step toward something much greater than itself.

“The point is, after 50 years of staying in low orbit, the time has come for humanity to go somewhere,” John Logsdon, of George Washington University, told me. “And I don’t just mean in circles around the International Space Station.”

Update: This piece has been updated to correct the value of NASA’s grant to Astrobotic, and the year that the company dropped out of the X Prize competition.

Beyond Prime: Inside the Race to Deliver Shipments to the Moon

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