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How Pennsylvania companies are trying to win the new space race

  • An-Li Herring/WESA
Astrobotic plans to launch its Peregrine lander during the first quarter of this year. The spacecraft is designed to carry payloads to the moon.

 Courtesy of Astrobotic

Astrobotic plans to launch its Peregrine lander during the first quarter of this year. The spacecraft is designed to carry payloads to the moon.

The North Side company Astrobotic has become the face of America’s return to the moon, but when its Peregrine lander lifts off this year, it will also mark a milestone for companies across Pennsylvania that supplied critical parts and services.

Set to lift off by the end of March, the lander is poised to become the first U.S. spacecraft to reach the moon’s surface since the Apollo program of the 1960s and ’70s. The apparatus is designed to deliver cargo such as rovers and satellites. Its launch would mark the first commercial mission to the moon.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said more than 100 firms supplied components for the lander. And whenever possible, he said, Astrobotic opted to work with local companies.

“You can literally just drive over to them and see how the part works,” he said. Such proximity helps to ensure quality and meet deadlines, and Thornton said it strengthens the region’s position in today’s renewed space race.

“We are competing with companies in Houston and all around the rest of the country in more traditional space locations. And we want to be able to compete heads-up with them,” he said. “That means building up that supply base right here at home.”

Astrobotic would not disclose the number of Pennsylvania companies with which it has contracted, deeming the figure to be confidential proprietary information. But Thornton noted many of the businesses had previously supplied the space industry.

For rigging and transportation company Steffan Industries, however, servicing a space company was a new experience. Founded in 1975, the Elizabeth Township business transported the lander from Astrobotic’s North Side office to a facility in Ambridge. It custom-built an oversized container and deployed escort vehicles to complete the trip.

“Prior to this project, it would have been a little difficult to try to think, how can a company like ours even assist with this?” said Steffan Industries vice president Sandy Steffan. “But it has certainly opened other doors for us.”

She said her business, which employs 10 people, has received more inquiries from potential customers. They cite the company’s work with Astrobotic, she said, noting that spacecraft demand a high degree of care. In fact, Steffan Industries’ insurer had required extra planning for the project, Steffan said.

“It was just that what-if scenario that we always have to take into consideration with risk management that [the lander] wouldn’t be able to be replaced if something would happen,” she said.

Nothing went wrong, so Steffan said she hopes her company can grow alongside Astrobotic and other space companies that might emerge from local universities.

John Conturo, president of Conturo Prototyping in North Point Breeze, said he’s already had that experience. The 32-employee business manufactured 5-foot-wide metal decks that attach payloads to the Peregrine lander as well as the spacecraft’s footpads and smaller components.

Conturo said his shop first fulfilled small orders for Astrobotic shortly after opening seven years ago.

“And then as [Astrobotic] grew … the amount of work that we got grew, [and] our business grew. So we were able to do more and have more capabilities [and] more expertise,” he said.

To meet the rigors of space, his factory has had to experiment with new materials and satisfy highly precise specifications.

“What’s really exciting … is just pushing the limits of what can be done,” Conturo said. “You’re always trying to reduce weight in all of these components. So you can imagine you have to get pretty creative with the geometry you use to reduce the weight as much as possible and keep the strength.”

Astrobotic’s success is emblematic of broader growth in the space industry, said Bryan Muzyka, manager of sales and marketing at Advanced Cooling Technologies in Lancaster. The company made 1- to 2-foot aluminum pipes that transfer heat away from electronic components in the Peregrine lander, preventing them from overheating.

Advanced Cooling Technologies employs 220 people and has served space companies since 2007, Muzyka said. He noted that the company has continued to grow as the government and private sector ramp up investment in space exploration and satellite development. This winter, the manufacturer will open a 32,000-square-foot facility to expand production.

“There’s a lot of really cool missions that are going to really help humanity in the long term that we’re just starting to kind of scratch the surface on,” Muzyka said.

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