Editorial: Astrobotic's launch is the next step for Pittsburgh's space program

In 1962, when President John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice University in Houston, Texas, challenging Americans to go to the moon, he used the timeline of progress to make his argument.

“Compress the achievements of human history down to just 50 years, and you can see how quickly things are moving,” he said excitedly.

“Just last week we developed penicillin, television and nuclear power, and now if the new American spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will actually have reached the stars before midnight tonight,” Kennedy said. “It is an astonishing pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new diseases because it scatters new old ignorance, new problems, and new risks. Certainly, the open horizons of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.”

That was 62 years ago. It took seven years to put the first man on the moon after that speech. NASA has sent astronauts into space six times and placed them on the moon. Twelve men took these steps, including Pittsburgh native Pete Conrad. Only four – Buzz Aldrin, David Scott, Charles Duke, and Harrison Schmidt – are still alive.

But it had been more than 51 years since the US moon landing mission, until Monday morning when Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology's Peregrine Mission One launched.

Space has become an increasingly commercial and lucrative business in recent years, and is particularly popular with billionaires like Elon Musk (Space X), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic). But Astrobotic, if ultimately successful, could do more than just accomplish the first commercial moon landing. It can be a unique equalizer.

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Astrobotic is headquartered where it was born, in the backyard of Carnegie Mellon University. It is not owned by the richest Forbes but mostly owned by its employees.

Kennedy's speech promoted the potential of both educational institutions like Rice and the industrial boom he expected from the space program.

He said: “I am pleased that this university is playing a role in sending a man to the moon as part of a great national effort for the United States of America.”

On Monday, Allegheny County Executive Sarah Inamorato echoed that, saying: “I would love for Pittsburgh to lead the way in the next era of space science, exploration and commerce.”

Post-launch propulsion problems make a lunar landing unlikely, but that doesn't change the loftiness of the goal or the importance of the effort. Since the pioneering mission in 1958 until the present, more than 70 moon-related missions carried out by American, Soviet, Russian, Japanese, Israeli and Arab organizations have failed. They make successes possible.

It also confirms what Kennedy knew in 1962, when he acknowledged the failure, difficulty, and challenge of reaching the moon. It is up to scientists and industry today to try again.

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