Profile | John Thornton, Chief Executive, Astrobotic Technology

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Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, a spinoff from the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of the leading contenders in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which pledges $20 million to the first team that lands a privately funded spacecraft on the surface of the Moon by Dec. 31, 2015. The winning entry also must traverse at least 500 meters of lunar landscape and transmit high-definition video back to Earth. Additional funds will be awarded for bonus achievements, including taking pictures of historic artifacts and driving 5 kilometers.

But winning is beside the point, says Astrobotic Chief Executive John Thornton. The company’s X Prize flight, slated for October 2015 aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 rocket, is the first of three planned missions to the lunar surface to provide commercial services for a variety of business, research, government, educational and marketing customers. 

“Our business model does not depend on winning the prize,” Thornton said. 

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Astrobotic is one of two contenders recently selected as finalists in a trio of supplemental Google Lunar X Prize competitions, with prizes totaling $6 million. The additional awards, dubbed Milestone Prizes, are intended to help teams demonstrate particular technical achievements prior to launching to the Moon. Three other teams were selected to compete in one or two of the supplemental competitions.

Thornton spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz about progress Astrobotic is making toward its flight next year and its plans into the future.

You recently completed a test flight of your lander’s guidance system on a Masten Space Systems Xombie vehicle. When is the next test?

All I can say is it’s going to happen within the next two months. We’re contractually obligated to not give specific dates on that. The way the system works is that we’re flying Masten’s lander — we are essentially like the astronaut-in-a-box that is controlling their lander. We have the guidance system onboard, we have the cameras and the lasers that are looking down at the terrain and looking for hazards, and we’re telling the spacecraft where a safe landing is and how to get there. 

Where do you plan to land on the Moon? 

Lacus Mortis, which is the “Lake of Death.” There’s a pit there and it’s the only one known that has a collapsed wall ramp that you can potentially drive down and potentially get inside of the cave.

Why visit a cave? 

We see that there’s a huge potential at these caves and pits for future human use. The only way we’re going to go and do that is if we go up-close and discover it and explore it and see what it’s about, see if you can get inside. I think robots are going to do that first, and it just makes sense to go there first.

There are some payloads that have interest in the caves, and potentially going in and exploring, but I’ll let those groups talk about that when we make those deals public. 

I’m assuming that’s not near any of the lunar historic sites, so you’re bypassing that part of the X Prize offering?

That is correct.

What do you intend to do for your mobility requirement?

We land on the surface and then we deploy a rover. The rover drives 500 meters, and ultimately drives 5 kilometers to win the X Prize distance prize, the bonus prize.

You’ve already announced several commercial customers that will be flying on your first mission. Are you also planning to fly other X Prize contenders?

We have agreements with other teams where we will land on the surface, deploy all the rovers and then at one point we’ll raise the green flag and everyone will drive 500 meters as fast as they can. Whoever wins, wins the glory of the prize.

There is a second prize to the X Prize, and there are also some prizes that you can’t win if you only have just two teams. There are milestone prizes, for example, that you can add to the pot, so flying more teams actually enables all the teams to be successful together.

So it’s possible that you wouldn’t win first prize even though you got everybody there.

Our goal is to fly payloads to the surface of the Moon, regularly and continuously into the future. The first mission is just a sample of that. Our business model does not depend on winning the prize. Bringing other teams with us is a big part of what we’re doing. I actually think it’s going to be exponentially more exciting every time we add another team, especially if it’s from another nation because then you’ve got nations from around the world that are watching live, real-time from the Moon as the excitement is unfolding.

Can you give me a rough idea of the number of X Prize contenders you think might be flying with you?

We can’t talk about that publicly, not yet at least. It’s very likely that we’ll fly with four X Prize teams, including ours. 

Whom do you consider your closest competitor for the Google Lunar X Prize?

Well, you’d probably have to pick Moon Express, because they were the only other team that got picked in all three categories for the $6 million in preflight Milestone Prizes added to the competition late last year. 

How do you differentiate yourself from Moon Express? I understand they have some similar objectives as far as a business plan.

Yeah, they are very similar. We have a much lower price point for payloads. We have a much higher capacity. Moon Express flies as a secondary payload on a launch vehicle, and we fly as a primary, so that means we control the schedule, we control the technical requirements to fly, and we can provide a lot more flexibility to customers to fly with us.

You’ve procured a Falcon 9 rocket launch for your first lunar mission. Do you have a launch date?

We’re planning on October 2015.

Why not any sooner?

Well, it takes time to develop the capability, develop the technology and build the spacecraft. There’s a lot more stuff to be done between now and then. Our rover will be about 25 kilograms, and a full payload would be about 270 kilograms of mass. We certainly don’t have to fill that to fly the first mission.

Did you look at any other launchers or is the pricing on the Falcon 9 the only one that was in the ballpark of this initial mission?

The Falcon 9 does have a great pricing structure and they were also offering a discount to X Prize teams — a 10 percent discount. Their price and performance are right for our mission and we’re very happy with SpaceX. The Falcon 9 upper stage kicks us into translunar injection. From there, our spacecraft takes over. 

What are you using for a propulsion system? 

We’re in final discussions with partners now. We haven’t yet made that public. 

Where will you be controlling the spacecraft from?

We’ll have a mission control center in Florida — the mission will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — and then we’ll hand off to Pittsburgh and will do missions operations from there.

How does this endeavor compare with what Astrobotic has done previously?

This is by far the most ambitious mission we’ve done. Before this, we’ve had 15 NASA contracts of various technology developments, but nothing to this scale and obviously nothing to the Moon. This is certainly a big, exciting step for us. 

How many employees do you have now?

We’re at 14 and hiring five more. 

What other missions are you planning?

The first one goes in 2015. The second is in 2018, and it lands at the pole of the Moon and drills for water. We’re in hot competition for NASA payload that wants to fly and land there, the Resource Prospector [formerly RESOLVE]. A third mission would go in 2020. 

Why did you embark on lunar flight and support services as a business venture?

We recognize that there’s a large, unserved market for small payloads that want to fly. These are payloads that can’t afford their own launch vehicles, they can’t afford to build their own lander or spacecraft, but they still want to do meaningful things in space and on the Moon. There are many, many, many people around the world who have the means and have the desires to do these things, but they don’t have a platform. We want to make the Moon as close as the next continent.