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From Pittsburgh to the Moon: Our Role in the Space Race

As the nation and private entrepreneurs focus again on space, 50 years after Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, Pittsburgh is once again in the celestial spotlight.



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Spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, the space robotics company holds a number of multimillion-dollar NASA contracts, tasked with everything from software development to planetary-rover design. Its goal, says Astrobotic CEO John Thornton, is to use robotics in such a way that universities, space agencies, and even everyday people can access the stars. “Essentially, our objective is to make space available to the world,” he says. “And we’re starting with the moon.”

In July 2021, Astrobotic’s unmanned lander, the Peregrine, will deliver one of the first-ever commercial payloads to the lunar surface. In addition to rovers and other instruments, the Peregrine will carry mementos from private citizens who’ve purchased space aboard the craft — “Mostly things like SD cards, family photos and wedding rings,” says Thornton. “We even got some pet hair.” To honor its hometown, Astrobotic will also send up a Kennywood token — a piece of Pittsburgh flair that beat out a Heinz pickle pin and an Eat’n Park Smiley Cookie during an online vote this spring.

Though part of its payload is tongue-in-cheek, the Peregrine’s mission is anything but, says Thornton. Eventually, the company hopes to create fuel from extracted lunar water, enabling deep-space jaunts to Mars and beyond. 

“If we can essentially learn to live off the land of another celestial body, we can become true planetary explorers,” he says. “The moon is our practice ground for that. It’s the place where we’ll learn to extract fuel and grow food and do all those basic things that help us break the tether of reliance on Earth. We’ll be able to go somewhere, set up shop, and then go to the next place and the place after that.”

Humanity’s interplanetary pilgrimage, in other words, could start in the Strip District — something that comes as no surprise to Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

For more than a century, says Masich, the city’s reputation as a place “where big thinkers and big capital came together” made it an early catalyst for space exploration. In his 1865 novel, “From the Earth to the Moon,” Jules Verne shot his characters through space using a giant cannon — one based on the real-life guns then being forged in Pittsburgh. Later,  John Brashear insisted the Allegheny Observatory be moved to a streetcar line and remain “forever free to the people,” giving much of the public its first up-close glimpse at the sky. 

(This helps explain the Observatory’s unusual placement just four miles north of Downtown. “People say, ‘Oh, the Allegheny Observatory, there’s too much light pollution there,’” says Lou Coban, the facility’s manager. “And I say, ‘Sure, but we’re within delivery range of like, 50 different pizza shops.’ But yes, the light pollution is pretty bad.”)

After turning our collective gaze upward, Pittsburghers then worked to get us off the ground. In 1903, the Pittsburgh Reduction Co. — soon to be called Alcoa — supplied the aluminum for two rather peculiar brothers from Ohio who were working on a lightweight engine. The Wrights took flight for the first time shortly thereafter, and Pittsburgh’s glass, steel and intellect have helped humans fly higher ever since.

That’s why so many aspects of Apollo 11 — from maps of potential landing sites to the Pittsburgh-designed lunar plaque — originated here, says Masich. And that’s why today, amid an increasingly frenetic push to get back to the moon, the Steel City is once again front-and-center. “We may not be the city with the same heavy industry that we had in 1969, but we still have the talent,” he says. “Our scientists and space companies are going to set the pace for the future.”

What that future could look like, says Masich, bends the imagination. “Think about it: We went from the Wright brothers to Apollo 11 within the span of a human lifetime. It makes the hair on your neck stand up. Are we a great species or what?”

Today, in a world once again marred by bad news and division, a shot of Masich’s enthusiasm certainly couldn’t hurt. And half a century after Apollo 11, perhaps the mission’s enduring lesson is that breakthroughs in space can deliver exactly that.
 

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