- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The future for a company like Astrobotic can seem almost whimsical to an outsider.

The start-up space firm, originally created in 2008 to be the private partner with Carnegie Mellon University in the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE competition to get the first privately funded unmanned rover to the moon, likes to say it wants to be “FedEx to the moon” and deliver things for people, companies, universities or governments to the lunar surface.

It generated some buzz, but also some criticism, last month when it announced the creation of MoonMail to let people affordably send small keepsakes or mementos to the moon.

But, of course, right now, there is no one delivering anything to the moon. And, even if you could, will there be enough demand to make a business out of it?

William “Red” Whittaker, the legendary CMU robotics professor and company founder, thinks so, and he thinks Astrobotic is in good company.

He points to past industries that sprung up out of seemingly daunting competitions, including the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 when he became the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris.

“Before Lindbergh landed in Paris, he couldn’t get a dollar of investment,” he said. “But after that, it grew into the huge investments that created the international airplane industry we have today.”

Closer to home, Mr. Whittaker points to the $100,000 Fredkin Prize - named after CMU professor Edward Fredkin - that challenged people to create a computer that could beat a reigning world chess champion, which finally happened in 1997.

“That seeded what became the gaming industry,” Mr. Whittaker said. “We don’t have to look back far to see how that changed things. It accelerated investment and attracted technology.”

In Mr. Whittaker’s vision, in 10 years, the company, now with just 20 employees in its Strip District headquarters, could have hundreds if not thousands of employees working here in Pittsburgh but also in branch offices near launch locations in Florida and California.

Riding multiple leased rockets to space and the moon, robots designed by Astrobotic could service satellites, collect space debris, explore the moon, mine meteors or accomplish still unforeseen tasks that companies or governments would pay for.

But as the company grows, and a space delivery industry evolves around it, it will continue to be based in Pittsburgh, which Astrobotic wants to help turn into a “space-faring city” at the center of a new space-delivery industry.

“Pittsburgh knows how to build an industry,” said Mr. Whittaker, a CMU robotics professor and legend in the field of robotics for the many innovative designs he has overseen in four decades of work. “Oil and gas, banking, steel, coal and now medicine, health care and technology, we’ve done it before. It really is a matter of pulling it all together in the industry. And that is one of the things favoring robotics and Pittsburgh now.”

“It is the right location for an emergent, space-faring company,” he said.

A BRIGHT FUTURE

But can it become what it hopes to become?

A lot of smart people who study the private space industry think it stands as good a chance as any company out there.

“They have hardware under development, which is my reality test: Are you building stuff or are you just talking about building stuff?” said Charles Chafer, the founder of Celestis Inc., the company that launches cremated human remains into space, including, most famously, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbery’s and 1960s psychedelics guru Timothy Leary.

Celestis has signed on to be one of Astrobotic’s first clients on its first launch - the one it wants to send to the moon some time in 2016 as part of the XPRIZE competition - and would pay Astrobotic millions to send a container containing the remains of 100 or more people to the moon.

The fact that successful companies like Celestis are signing on with Astrobotic is encouraging to Marco Caceres, senior space analyst and director of space studies at Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry analysis company:

From what he knows about Astrobotic, “it looks like this company will be one of the pioneers in space. And initially, that will probably be one of the advantages” like it has been for Celestis, he said. “If it works and if you’re the first private company to get up there, that’s huge.”

He also likes that Astrobotic, has learned “like SpaceX, that, in order to minimize risk, take NASA on as a client.”

NASA has awarded Astrobotic 17 contracts over the years, generating revenue that has helped keep the company going and allowed it to build momentum.

SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, is the maker of the low-cost, Falcon 9 rocket that Astrobotic intends to ride to the moon.

But can Astrobotic foster an industry? Will Astrobotic be worth billions overnight if they get that first mission and payload to the moon?

“It depends on their follow-through,” Mr. Caceres said.

He uses Virgin Galactic as a cautionary tale, noting that the British company owned by billionaire Richard Branson won a prize early last decade that appeared to make possible its goal of regularly flying paying people to space.

“But they didn’t follow through very well. They took a long time to develop their tech and aircraft,” he said. “Anyone can do something that looks hard once. But all the sudden if you do it again and again, that creates an industry.”

“The key is to get it launched. You don’t want to be doing like Virgin Galactic the last five to six years and saying over and over, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it next year,’ ” he said. “You can delay it once or twice, but not forever.”

He said while launching rockets into outer space has become more common, with about 70 launches a year now, there are one to three failures each year, so, the risk remains high. A Virgin Galactic test flight crashed in California on Oct. 31, killing the co-pilot and seriously wounding the pilot.

“I look forward to seeing if they actually launch,” he said, “and not just once, but the second and third launch, because that is what is important.”

ADAPTING TO THE MARKET

When the company began in 2008 in a small office above a bagel shop on Craig Street in Oakland near CMU’s campus, “it was just Red and me,” said John Thornton, 34, a CMU grad who was initially a company engineer and now is its CEO.

“It’s just like any other company or start-up,” Mr. Thornton said. “We had a rough start for us. We ran out of money in that first year.”

The company’s original mission as to collect data on the moon and then sell it to space agencies. But the market did not materialize for that.

“We realized we needed to adapt, change, and scale our plans up,” Mr. Thornton said. “We went back to the basics, evaluated where we were, took a look at the market, at the industry. We concluded there is a large market in flying things to the moon.”

That strategy encouraged some private and “angel” investors, and, along with the continuing success in getting NASA contracts and then clients for the payload, has sustained Astrobotic to now.

“Early on, we had customers say, ‘Am I going to be the only customer on this launch?’ ” said Kevin Peterson, 34, Astrobotic’s chief technology and a CMU grad, as are three-quarters of its employees. “But we’ve gathered momentum and we clearly have a long way to go. And now we’re getting more interest from the funding sources.”

Along the way it has also designed some innovative technology that could have commercial potential for other companies’ missions, from an autonomous landing system to environmentally friendly fuel.

“We innovate where we have to,” Mr. Peterson said. “But we use off-the-shelf technology where we can to keep costs low.”

And though Mr. Whittaker likes to say that “success if everything” and he would very much like to win the XPRIZE, he adds: “We are on our own timeline.”

“Astrobotic is dead set on running ahead of the pack,” he said. “But there is no motivation to launch early. In technology pursuit, there’s always the chance if you run too fast, you’re going to miss something.”

Can it make XPRIZE’s Dec. 31, 2016, deadline and get to the moon first and claim the prize?

“Oh yeah. We’re close,” Mr. Peterson said. “But it’s not going to be easy. I don’t think things like this are.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/1F4Zg3E

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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