Astrobotic, the 6-year-old Pittsburgh firm that likes to say it wants to be “FedEx to the moon,” said Thursday it also wants to be the outer space version of another terrestrial delivery operator: the U.S. Postal Service.
The space delivery company, headquartered in the Strip District, announced the creation of its MoonMail service, which Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said will allow “people around the world to have direct participation in missions to the moon.”
Until Thursday, Astrobotic had been selling big chunks of payload space — at $1.2 million per kilogram, about 2.2 pounds — to companies, universities and governments on the commercial rocket voyage it will take sometime in the next two years.
But now Mr. Thornton said in response to numerous unsolicited requests that MoonMail will allow any individual in the world to send to the moon anything that can fit into a container up to 1 inch by 2 inches in size, big enough to hold letters, photos or family mementos.
Anyone who wants to send something can go to its new website — Moonmail.co — and pay $460 to send a keepsake in the smallest container, an aluminum box one-half inch by one-eighth inch. For a box that measures 1 inch by 2 inches, the cost is $25,800, but there are other sizes in between.
The weight of the object is not a factor in its cost, only its size.
“If it fits, it ships,” Mr. Thornton said, quoting a U.S. Postal Service commercial. “Essentially, it’s a flat-rate box.”
By making the service available for the first time two weeks before Christmas, the company noted in its news release that MoonMail is available to “make it a gift during this holiday season.”
“We’d love to see the whole world get involved with this,” said Mr. Thornton, who was the company’s first employee when it was created in 2008 as a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University.
He said Astrobotic believes it is the first company in the world to make such an offer to regular people.
Other companies have sent cremation ashes into space, particularly Celestis Inc., the Houston company that famously sent Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s ashes into space in 1997 and runs a regular service.
Celestis has typically sent ashes into space — but never to the moon, until now — in containers that were piggy-backing on other space flights. It charges a sliding scale that starts at $12,500 for one gram of ashes.
Now that Celestis is one of Astrobotic’s five confirmed large payload customers, a person who wants to send ashes in a MoonMail delivery will be referred to Celestis, Mr. Thornton said.
While MoonMail is the kind of quirky, buzzy marketing idea that can get Astrobotic lots of media — and social media — attention, it also serves the dual purpose of helping the company get enough paying customers to pay for the rocket, albeit one tiny box at a time.
Although the revenue could help the company in its goal of paying for the rocket with the payload, Mr. Thornton said it is simply a “response to demand.” If MoonMail does not generate the number of customers it hopes, “this is not a make or break for the mission.”
The potential customers who asked previously about sending small, passive packages to the moon could not afford the normal $200,000 “integration fee” that Astrobotic requires to pay for all of the work it takes to determine if the larger, more technical payloads are properly designed and prepared.
MoonMail waives that fee for the smaller, passive packages, though the company still will vet each item that people want to send to the moon to ensure it is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense, which regulate missions to outer space.
The company has leased a Falcon 9 rocket built by the private California-based company Space X, and Astrobotic is paying for the lease by selling payload that will be attached to a lunar lander it is designing itself.
Every object sent by MoonMail will be loaded into a 1-foot-high, 1-foot-round, torpedo-shaped aluminum tube and permanently bolted onto the lunar lander that Astrobotic intends to send to moon.
Once the lander arrives at its destination — a depression in the moon’s surface known as Lacus Mortis, or “Lake of Death” in Latin — the pod containing hundreds or thousands of personal objects will remain there as something of a “time capsule of our era,” Mr. Thornton said.
The destination to Lacus Mortis was chosen as part of the Google Lunar Xprize competition that is the reason Astrobotic exists.
Google announced the $20 million grand prize in 2007, challenging private groups to put the first unmanned rover on the moon’s surface, drive it 500 meters and send back high-definition video of the effort. CMU robotics professor William “Red” Whittaker made CMU the first team to enter.
A year later, Mr. Whittaker, who is Astrobotic’s board chairman and chief science officer, created the company and teamed it up with CMU students and staff
Although the competition was the reason Astrobotic was created, and the team still intends to win the Xprize competition against 18 other competitors from around the world, Mr. Thornton said MoonMail serves a larger original purpose for the company.
“We have an even bigger goal in mind: To make the moon accessible to everyone in the world,” he said.
“I mean, how many people can say they sent something to the moon?”
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579. First Published December 11, 2014 12:07 PM