Foust Forward | Building a space industry in Steel City
Several years ago, John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, presented his company’s plans to build lunar landers at a “pitch day” in the company’s hometown of Pittsburgh, an event where startups describe their businesses and look for investors and customers.
It didn’t go well. “The judges laughed the entire time during my pitch,” recalled Thornton. “They just couldn’t imagine there’s a space company in Pittsburgh.”
He may soon have the last laugh. His company is completing its first lunar lander, Peregrine, slated to launch as soon as late this year. The NASA contracts for both that lander and a second, larger one, Griffin, have allowed the company to grow from 18 employees three years ago to nearly 10 times that today.
Thornton and others want to ensure that Astrobotic isn’t the only space company in Pittsburgh or the wider region. In April, as Astrobotic unveiled Peregrine, a nonprofit group called the Keystone Space Collaborative held an inaugural conference to discuss how to build up a regional space industry.
Justine Kasznica, chair of the board of Keystone Space Collaborative, said one purpose of the organization is to raise awareness of the space capabilities of the region — which it defines as centered on Pittsburgh but stretching out through the rest of Pennsylvania as well as Ohio and West Virginia — to the rest of the nation and the federal government, and to help companies in the region compete for government contracts.
At the same time, the group is looking inward. “I think there’s a real lack of awareness of who’s who in the region,” she said. One step to address that is the creation of an “ecosystem map” that highlights the companies, universities and other organizations in the region linked to space. “It’s getting everyone on the same page, speaking with once voice about what the region’s strengths are.”
And what are the region’s strengths? Kasznica pointed to expertise in fields such as life sciences, robotics and autonomy. That would allow the region to complement, rather than directly compete with, space industry clusters in other parts of the country that focus on launch, satellite manufacturing or analytics.
“We’re good at building hardware,” she said. “It’s costly, but there’s a great cost of living here. It takes a long time to deploy, but we have the patience here to build business fundamentals, get customers and build markets.”
That effort does face several challenges. One is attracting workers to the region, something Astrobotic has had to deal with as it grew. “In terms of attracting talent, it’s one thing to be in Houston, Northern California or Southern California, where people can bounce around from company to company,” said Sharad Bhaskaran, Peregrine mission manager at Astrobotic. “Here, we’re asking people to go cross-country with their families with no real assurance we can survive in the long term.”
They’ve had some success with bringing in “boomerangers”: people who grew up in the region and then left to pursue space industry careers elsewhere but who now are interested in coming back to be close to family and enjoy a lower cost of living.
Another challenge is funding. “It’s rough,” Thornton said. There is some seed capital available, “but after that, it gets very challenging.” He said Astrobotic leveraged NASA funding, starting with small business technology contracts and then working up to its lunar lander awards, to grow the company.
Companies in the region “don’t fit in the regular West Coast VC-fundable model because we don’t have a return on investment that’s like a hockey stick,” said Kasznica. “But what we have is pretty awesome because hardware companies follow a slower growth curve, which forces companies to build tech fundamentals and a customer pipeline.”
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the May 2022 issue.