A Hawthorne company’s plan to help future astronauts

A Hawthorne startup joins much larger players in the push to explore colonization on the moon, as NASA plans to send astronauts there heat up the commercial lunar market.

Aerospace company Venturi Astrolab Inc., better known as Astrolab, is building a multipurpose truck intended to build lunar infrastructure and also transport astronauts, enabling work that would make a long-term installation on the moon possible.

The companies are betting that NASA’s drive to return to the moon in several years, along with technological and commercial advances that have lowered launch costs, could be lucrative for companies that get there early and succeed.

“We are now moving from the first phase of exploration to the first phase of colonization,” said Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut and Astrolab advisory board member. “It’s going to be part of human commerce and human geography,” he said of the first moon colonization.

NASA aims to send astronauts to the moon no earlier than 2025 as part of its Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon. The goal is to develop a sustained lunar presence, which would act as a sort of stepping stone to future missions to Mars, from a location relatively close to home where astronauts could further explore the moon and train to live and work in space.

The Moon is about 238,000 miles from Earth, while Mars is about 140 million miles away.

First, it would require a base for operations on the moon. Already, SpaceX has won a contract to develop a lunar lander that would deliver astronauts to the lunar surface. Last year, aerospace giants Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin each said they were working on lunar terrain vehicles for transporting astronauts that could compete for a future contract with NASA.

Founded in 2019 by former employees of NASA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and SpaceX, Astrolab is building a rover capable of performing tasks such as construction, transporting supplies to build a moon base, science and exploration, as well as transporting astronauts around the lunar surface. The 15-person company is currently testing a prototype vehicle.

Unlike other rovers, which are often designed around a specific purpose, Astrolab’s Flexible Logistics and Exploration rover is intended to be more versatile, said Jaret Matthews, the company’s founder and chief executive.

“We want to be the UPS or FedEx to the moon,” Matthews said.

On Wednesday afternoon in Hawthorne, Matthews demonstrated how the rover is able to roll over rocks, maneuver laterally and turn, pick up and carry loads. He said the rover could carry twice the capacity of a Ford F-150 truck platform. The company ultimately wants to build a fleet of rovers.

Matthews spent 10 years at NASA’s JPL working on Mars rovers before moving to SpaceX and developing the system that allows the capsule carrying astronaut Crew Dragon to dock with the International Space Station.

“What I love about rovers is that they are an extension of humanity – our ambassadors in the solar system,” he said.

Matthews said the Astrolab rover is different from other rovers in development because transporting astronauts is only part of its job. The company aims to send a rover to the moon before the astronauts even arrive so it can be installed ahead of time.

“Astronaut time is the most valuable time in the world,” he said. “The more robots we can make…the better.”

At least initially, the lunar market will be limited to government contracts, said Laura Forczyk, owner of space consultancy Astralytical. But if the technology matures and the market proves itself, it could expand beyond government exploration to construction, resource exploitation, lunar infrastructure or even tourism.

“In the future, as we start to feel more comfortable with lunar exploration, it could really open up,” Forczyk said. “But it’s so early in the process that we don’t know which direction will be the most realistic.”

Astrolab isn’t just betting on government contracts for its business case. Matthews wouldn’t discuss investors or company finances, citing Astrolab’s status as a private company, but said he thinks the rover will be competitive for a number of business opportunities. and civilians.

The company’s moonshot took the pilot rover from its base in Hawthorne to California’s Death Valley, where Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, tested whether it could be used successfully in a rugged landscape.

Dressed in a bulky mock-up spacesuit, he and a partner stood on a platform at the controls in the back of the rover, as if ready to operate a much bulkier four-wheeled Segway. They started hunting the prototype. As they rode, the team chasing them faded and the test suddenly became “very realistic”.

“There was nothing in our line of sight that was human,” Hadfield said. “There were no tracks, no buildings. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty evocative of what it was going to do, and obviously what it did for the 12 guys who walked on the moon.

Times staff photographer Genaro Molina contributed to this report.

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