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Gov. Shapiro says $4 million for Pittsburgh space company will launch regional industry

Two men in suits talk to each other, with one of their backs turned.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the CEO of Astrobotics Technology, John Thortnon, at the company's headquarters for the second time this year on Tuesday.

When Astrobotic Technology launches its first spacecraft to the moon this Christmas Eve, it will mark a huge milestone for its CEO, John Thornton.

Thornton graduated from Carnegie Mellon and, 16 years ago, joined Astrobotic. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at a media event on Tuesday at Astrobotic’s North Side headquarters that he remembered when the recent Carnegie Mellon graduate, Thornton, was working out of a garage in the Strip District.

Thornton hopes the attention from the company’s planned moon landing in January will help launch a whole new space exploration industry in Pittsburgh. Astrobotic was awarded $79.5 million for the project, and the company already employs more than 200 people. It plans to more than double its workforce in three years. The company has a second launch scheduled for 2024 and, Thornton hopes, the company will be part of NASA’s $90 billion effort to carry astronauts back to the moon.

“We see continued explosive growth opportunities in space,” Thornton said. “It's been 50 years since we've gone back, so there is no incumbent. So it's an opportunity for a new business like us and a new space state to rise.”

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Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro on Tuesday announced a $4 million investment in the company’s new office building on the North Side. The company is renovating a 46,000 square foot, five-story building, which will serve as additional office and lab space. And importantly, Shapiro said, the bottom floor of the new building will include room for new space startup companies — much like Astrobotic was 16 years ago.

They are quite literally building the hub for the entire industry right here on the North Side,” Shapiro said.

Thornton said the company has relied on more than 140 suppliers from the state of Pennsylvania and they hope to attract even more space companies. “The more we can vertically integrate, the more we can build that local supply chain,” Thornton said. “We right now send people to California and all over the country to go visit our suppliers. We'd much rather walk down the street and drive next door.”

Rick Siger, the secretary of community and economic development in Pennsylvania, said the state’s $4 million investment — of which a little less than half is a grant, a little more than half is a loan — is necessary.

“It's no secret that companies like Astrobotic are being sought after … by states like Texas and Florida who have much more established space ecosystems,” Siger said. “We wanted to work with Astrobotic to help them ensure that they grow right here in Pennsylvania, and this investment helps us do that.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said that the investment in Astrobotic would help Northside communities like Manchester by bringing jobs. Fitzgerald said the nearby Community College of Allegheny County could serve as a training ground for local residents to secure those positions.

Astrobotic’s current plans to grow could be massively exceeded if the company wins more of the contracts it’s currently pursuing, Thornton said. And he believes the North Side has the infrastructure to support the growth.

“We see just vast opportunities,” he said. “It is a sea of parking lots and we hope to turn that into jobs and economic activity in space.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.