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John Thornton


John ThorntonJohn ThorntonJohn ThorntonJohn Thornton


  • Name: John Thornton
  • Where I'm From: Califon, New Jersey
  • Where I Live: Highland Park
  • Education:
    Carnegie Mellon University, M.A. and B.S, Mechanical Engineering
  • Company:

“If Pittsburgh can land on the moon, we can do anything. This will be a huge exclamation point on the reputation and success of the city.”

In history, there have only been 3 countries to land on the Moon and they were all super powers – The United States, Russia, and China –and in 2020, John Thornton plans to put Pittsburgh, PA on that list as the newest lunar super power. John is the CEO and co-founder of Astrobotic, a lunar logistics company that delivers payloads to the Moon for companies, governments, universities, nonprofits, and individuals. If this sounds straight out of a sci-fi novel it’s because until recently, it was, but John and his team are working diligently to make the Moon accessible to everyone: “We are working to push the ecosphere of human activity by making the Moon part of our economic domain on a regular basis.”

The son of engineers, John always liked to build things, including a model rover in middle school, but didn’t firmly set his sights on space until the end of his college career. He moved to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University and study mechanical engineering, ultimately completing an accelerated master’s degree in the field. After an internship with Boeing and a full-time job offer upon graduation, John found himself with a unique opportunity for a free summer. He teamed up with CMU roboticist and professor, Red Whittaker, to lead the build of Scarab, a NASA concept robot for lunar drilling that was delivered to NASA and continues to be tested. Shortly thereafter, the Google X prize was announced in 2007 for a once-in-a-lifetime moon shot opportunity and the rest is history.  While the Google X prize did not come to fruition, it was the impetus for the work that John continues today with Astrobotic: “There’s been built up demand for years to go back to the moon for exploration and we’ve been building the infrastructure to respond to that demand. One sale at a time, one technology development at a time, one investment at a time.”

The government announcement that the U.S. will be investing in two new NASA programs in October 2018 with plans to invest nearly $2B over the next five years through public-private partnerships is the opportunity Astrobotic has been waiting for: “It has been 11 years of working with some of the greatest minds in space today. None of this is done by a single person. It takes a village to get to the Moon and our partnership with Airbus, NASA and the United Launch Alliance gives us confidence that we can get this done right the first time.” In addition to strong national partnerships, Pittsburgh provides an important role in getting to the Moon and accomplishing their goals: “The biggest reason we’re in Pittsburgh is for the world class robotics talent. We home grow robotics talent and we import space talent from around the country and that makes us best in class in space robotics.”

When he’s not pushing the limits of time and space, John and his wife, Justine Kasznica, enjoy spending time outdoors hiking, biking, backpacking, and out on the rivers. Ohiopyle is a favorite spot, as well as nearby trails and parks in West Virginia. They bought their house in Highland Park in 2010 with no running water or working electricity and have spent the better part of the last decade turning the passion project into a home. Local favorites after a long day include Smiling Banana Leaf in Highland Park for Thai food and Spoon in East Liberty. As for budding entrepreneurs, John said the best advice he can give is to be passionate and persistent and if it’s technology or robotics-driven, it doesn’t hurt to be in Pittsburgh:

“I think there are a huge number of folks coming here and recognizing that Pittsburgh is ground zero for a lot of robotics and cutting edge technology, combined with great quality of life and employment opportunities makes it the place to be.”

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