In the Yahoo Finance series NEXT, Yahoo Finance anchor Akiko Fujita travels to the headquarters of Astrobotic Technology in Pittsburgh, Penn., for a glimpse at the future and what it will take to colonize the moon.
Astrobotic is on a mission to make history. More than five decades after the Apollo missions landed the first Americans on the moon, the Pittsburgh-based company is attempting to become the first commercial firm to successfully land an aircraft on the surface of the moon. That journey would mark the first step in a larger vision to develop the lunar surface’s infrastructure, in an effort to establish a more permanent human presence there.
Astrobotic’s advancements point to a rapidly growing private space industry that is pushing space exploration to new heights. While government agencies like NASA have traditionally spearheaded space missions, the emergence of new upstarts have led to a surge in public-private partnerships focused on scientific research, driving a $470 billion industry.
Astrobotic’s immediate focus is on delivering cargo to the moon. CEO John Thornton and his team are placing their first bet on the Peregrine lunar lander, a small-class spacecraft developed inside its 47,000-square-foot facility. Equipped with its electronics, propulsion, and communications systems, the Peregrine will be loaded aboard United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket, scheduled for launch later this year.
NEXT is a groundbreaking series that will offer a glimpse into some of the biggest companies Yahoo Finance covers every day, what they’re planning for the future, and what it means for your investing portfolio.
JOHN THORNTON: I think the future of the moon is a routine regular access to the moon.
The same way that we're talking about hotels for private citizens in space.
AKIKO FUJITA: Hotels on the moon?
JOHN THORNTON: It will be a little while, but I think that's a possibility sometime in the future.
AKIKO FUJITA: The future's unfolding at Astrobotic's headquarters in Pittsburgh. Inside this vast facility, researchers are laying the groundwork for reality once limited to science fiction-- human life on the moon.
AKIKO FUJITA: Hair mask on?
JOHN THORNTON: Hair mask on.
AKIKO FUJITA: One size fits all.
JOHN THORNTON: There's a few different sizes.
AKIKO FUJITA: A small is too big for me. We all ready?
JOHN THORNTON: All right.
AKIKO FUJITA: Astrobotic's ambitions are driven by CEO John Thornton. His lifelong vision taking shape inside a clean room so secure, few outside the company are allowed in.
JOHN THORNTON: That is the largest lander of any kind since Apollo, as you're seeing right there. It's going to deliver a 1,000-pound rover that NASA's building called Viper to the pole of the moon to drill for water.
AKIKO FUJITA: Space landers built here will carry the load for the lunar economy, shuttling cargo from the Earth to the moon.
JOHN THORNTON: The amount of precision required and the amount of engineering that's required to get every gram of performance out of this vehicle, it's tremendous.
AKIKO FUJITA: The Peregrine Lander marks the first real test for Astrobotic's technology. It's housed inside the most secure confines of its facility.
JOHN THORNTON: We're walking into an area that is less than 10,000 parts per million in dust and debris in the air. So we need to be very, very clean to make sure that our dry skin or our hair or any debris that comes from us doesn't end up on the spacecraft.
AKIKO FUJITA: The Peregrine is engineered with its own electronics, propulsion, and communication systems. The vehicle will be loaded onto a ULA Vulcan rocket. If it lands successfully, it would mark the first commercial lunar landing in history, beating out their primary competitor Japan's ispace. You talked about Astrobotic's mission being sort of democratizing access to the moon. Why is it so difficult to get there?
JOHN THORNTON: First, you've got to build the spacecraft here on Earth. You've got to get it up into space. That's relatively easy now, especially with the likes of the rise of commercial launch. Groups like SpaceX, for example, making access to space affordable and routine.
But the next big challenge is when you go to the moon is you have to build a spacecraft that can fly for up to a month or more at a time through space, get out to the moon, drop into lunar orbit, and then descend for a soft landing down on the surface. No private group has so far been successful to land on the surface themselves. We hope to be the first.
AKIKO FUJITA: Success on that initial landing will pave the way for Astrobotic's next phase-- building out the moon's infrastructure. It's part of a $470 billion global industry, largely dominated by the US. While satellites and rockets have attracted a bulk of the space investments, infrastructure spending is growing.
JOHN THORNTON: Most people think of space as NASA and the government agencies, but less than 20% of that 470 billion is actually government activity. So the rise of commercial space is thriving right now and only projected to continue to grow. And the moon is going to play a very important part of that.
AKIKO FUJITA: Playing in that space requires navigating the moon's extremes. This is one of those rooms they use to simulate light in space. That light you see there is what they call earthshine. It's essentially the reflection of the light through the Earth's atmosphere. And that really bright light you see back there is the sunlight. And they do this to make sure that their software can operate in these conditions.
JESSE KUHN: The lighting conditions in space are very challenging. There's no atmosphere that will diffuse the light and make it change directions and kind of even it out. And dark in space is very dark. There's zero light reflected around.
AKIKO FUJITA: The tests are done to ensure these robots can navigate the lunar surface in spite of that. This one known as Cuberover is designed to carry payloads across challenging terrain filled with tiny particles known as moon dust.
So this is pretty similar to what we know as regolith, which is on the lunar surface. And it kind of feels like sand.
JAY ECKARD: One of the biggest issues on the moon is the dust. It's almost talcum powder-like sized. It's very sticky. It's very electrostatically charged. It sticks to stuff like static. And that can get on all kinds of things and cause all kinds of problems.
AKIKO FUJITA: To address that, Jay Eckard's teams built a wireless charger that can operate even with a moon dust storm, giving rovers and landers a direct source of power.
So the expectation is that you take this to the moon, you're going to get all the regolith in there, but you want to make sure that it's still transferring power.
JAY ECKARD: That's right because if you run out of power on the moon, that's game over. You don't get to go up there and plug it in or bring in extra batteries.
AKIKO FUJITA: To ensure reliable access to power, Astrobotic's also building out a portable grid that provides solar energy. This Lunagrid will act as a type of mini gas station, generating and distributing power that's especially critical during the lunar night, which spans 14 days.
JOHN THORNTON: It gets down to liquid nitrogen cold for two weeks, and that kills a lot of spacecraft. So if you can survive that night, you can then do multiple year long expeditions on the surface of the moon.
AKIKO FUJITA: It's a future Astrobotic is working closely with NASA on. The company secured multiple contracts valued at $450 million. Next year, this Griffin lander is set to carry NASA's own rover Viper as part of the Artemis mission. That robot will be tasked with looking for a water in the deepest craters of the moon. If they're successful, Thornton says it will open the floodgates for space exploration.
JOHN THORNTON: So water at the poles the moon could be like oil it was here on Earth for the beginnings of our space travel. So that could be how we go back and forth from the moon. That could be how we refuel our spacecraft to go to Mars and other deep space destinations, but it all starts right here with our nearest neighbor, the moon.
AKIKO FUJITA: That 240,000 mile journey from the Earth to the moon, unlocking a new vision that could propel humans into the next frontier.