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Your Job is Whaaat??!

“I’m Making The Moon Accessible To The World”

We interviewed John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. John shares his story, and talks about the literal business of taking moon shots.

John Thornton: Sending Cargo To The Moon

This is the story of John Thornton and his role as CEO of Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Astrobotic is a space robotics company that flies cargo into space and to the moon for corporations, universities, and governments. The company builds its own spacecraft and aims to make the moon accessible to the world.

John was hired into Astrobotic as a Mechanical Engineer in 2009, straight out of college. He passed on an opportunity to work for a big aerospace firm in favor of a startup. He wanted the opportunity to innovate and have a hand in the development of a vehicle.

John earned multiple promotions and is now Chief Executive Officer.

As CEO,  John oversees the day-to-day operations at Astrobotic, working with the Business Development Team, the Mission Team, and the Future Missions and Technology Team to create a cohesive unit that operates in sync.

He recognizes the role his company is playing in history.

“If you go back one hundred years,” John says, “flying commercially in airplanes was unheard of. Today, people are beginning to see the possibilities of robotic cargo transit”

In the interview, John gives career advice to people with an interest in robotics, telling them to just go out and create things. “I’ve always loved math and science,” he says, “and I’ve always loved things that move.”

“Robotics is all these disciplines, put together.”

Watch the entire interview with John Thornton, CEO at Astrobotic.

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Episode transcript

[00:01] What drew me to this industry was the opportunity to do amazing things. How often do you get an opportunity to literally take a moon shot?

[00:17] My name is John Thornton. I’m the CEO of Astrobotic and we are making the moon accessible to the world.

[00:23] So working in aerospace is an exciting field because we’re building a spacecraft that is flying and landing on the moon. A moon landing has only happened by three nations: the US, the former Soviet Union and just recently China.

[00:37] We now have ten payloads for Mission 1 from six nations. Many of those nations have never landed on the surface of the moon. That’s their moment. When they will touch the moon as a nation for the first time, that’s their Apollo moment and we are lucky enough to be a part of that story.

[00:52] The idea that a small private company in the US could do the same thing that superpowers have done is a very hard thing for people to grasp. So as the CEO of Astrobotic, I oversee the day to day operations here at the company. I work with the Business Development Team, the Mission Team and our Future Missions and Technology Group to stitch all the pieces together to make sure that we’re operating together as a cohesive team.

[01:15] We are building the spacecraft – what you see behind me. We’re building the business – that is finding payload customers and attracting partners to the mission. We have world class partners associated with Astrobotic that are working with us day in and day out including NASA and together we are creating a world class team to build the spacecraft.

[01:34] So the hardest part of my job in particular is convincing the world that it’s possible to go to the moon and to make money because the math is there and the market is there — the demand is there. We have more than one hundred customers in our pipeline today and that is a growing number every day but it does take a lot of time for people to get over that wow, this is really possible.

[01:56] If you go back one hundred years, there was a time when flying commercially in airplanes was unheard of. I think we’re having that transition now where people are just beginning to see the possibilities of robotic cargo transit. I mean, it’s very early and people are just beginning to see what’s possible.

[02:14] So I started Astrobotic as a Mechanical Engineer right after I graduated with my Bachelors and Masters for Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon. Over the last nine years, I have worked my way up the ranks. I had an opportunity to work for big aerospace or in this case a small startup aerospace company and I ended up choosing the small startup company because I wanted the opportunity to really innovate and have a big hand in the development of a vehicle.

[02:40] I’ve always loved things that moved, I’ve always loved math and science and putting all the pieces together and building things and for me it was lining up passions with my skills and it all just kind of clicked when I saw that. If you’re getting started and are interested in math and science, build on that. Go out and create things.

[02:59] Robotics is all disciplines put together so there’s a tremendous skill set that’s required to do successful robotics. So find your passion, follow it and success will follow. That’s why I’m very excited to be with Astrobotic because this has an opportunity to change the world and fundamentally alter the way we think about space and the moon and everything beyond.