Beyond Prime: Inside the Race to Deliver Shipments to the Moon
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is set to be the first private company to make a lunar landing
In early 2019, Israeli organization SpaceIL launched a small spacecraft named Beresheet from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a simple mission: to become the first private spacecraft to land on the moon.
On April 11, as Beresheet’s landing was being livestreamed across the world, John Thornton, the chief executive of a private space company called Astrobotic, gathered his team around a projector in the corner of his office in downtown Pittsburgh. Thornton had mixed feelings about the landing. As someone who has spent his entire career advocating for a return to the moon, he was happy for SpaceIL. But he’d also hoped that Astrobotic would do it first.
Beresheet’s two-month voyage from Earth’s orbit to the moon had been smooth, and there was every indication that the dishwasher-sized lander was going to touch down within the boundaries of Mare Serenitatis, a volcanic basin on the northern side of the moon. But several minutes before the spacecraft was due to land, one of Thornton’s colleagues sensed trouble. “We could tell by the faces of the people at [Beresheet] mission control that something was off,” Thornton said.
A few moments later, Beresheet’s main engine failed. When it came back online, mission control had lost communication with the craft. All signs pointed to a crash landing. Before Beresheet went offline, it pinged back a richly detailed photo of the lunar surface.
“They got really close,” Thornton said a few hours later. “They didn’t make it, but they still proved that you don’t have to be a superpower to get to the moon. You can still get up there and have a darn good shot at making that landing. And that’s exactly what we intend to do.”
SpaceIL is going to try again. But first, it has to build a new lander. With the Israeli company out of commission for the foreseeable future, Astrobotic is next in line to become the world’s first private company to land on the moon.
Say you want to send scientific equipment, a time capsule, or your grandmother’s ashes to the…