Israel's Shot at Sending Unmanned Spacecraft to the Moon May Finally Be Doomed

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A mock-up of the SpaceIL spacecraft from the YouTube series MOON SHOT
A mock-up of the SpaceIL spacecraft from the YouTube series MOON SHOTCredit: SpaceIL

Israel’s shot at sending an unmanned spacecraft to the moon may be doomed after billionaire businessman Morris Kahn resigned as chairman of SpaceIL on Monday.

According to the company’s managing director, Kahn’s departure after a year and a half on the job is based on the sense that although he had donated to the venture personally, his financial status was actually an obstacle to tapping other potential investors. “The situation in which the organization chairman was a donor himself got in the way of the fundraising process,” SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman told TheMarker.

SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to participate in a Google contest, promising $20 million to the first group that landed an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. Kahn had been involved in the venture from the get-go and over the years donated $18.5 million to the cause. Altogether SpaceIL raised $55 million.

In fact Kahn’s resignation is just the last phase in attrition at SpaceIL. Fourteen senior people have left – quit or were fired – not a few of them engineers and managers who, like Kahn, had been involved from the beginning.

Almost there ...

The SpaceIL project is headed by Privman, who tells TheMarker that Kahn left because of the nonprofit’s financial state. Namely, it needs $30 million to finish building the spaceship and move onto the next stage.

It would just take three more weeks to finish building the spaceship and install its electronics, Privman says, after which it would undergo testing in conditions emulating outer space and the moon itself, to make sure the thing works.

A mock-up of the SpaceIL spacecraft from the YouTube series MOON SHOTCredit: SpaceIL

Basically, Kahn and management agreed that his role as chairman was detrimental to the fundraising effort, Privman explains. Kahn agreed to personally hand over another $10 million, if the organization could raise $20 million from others; now they hope that with him gone, they will find it easier to tap the state and private donors as well.

They still hope to launch in 2018, but given that this is a competition, they won’t reveal the scheduled launch date, Privman says.

However, if they can’t raise the $30 million, they can’t finish creating the spaceship and the project will collapse.

“The challenge is a tough one and it’s legitimate for people to leave,” acknowledges Yanki Margalit, a technology entrepreneur who had been chairman of the venture from its establishment before stepping down a year and a half ago and being replaced by Kahn. “The dream among the people on the first day had been childish – to create a spaceship that would land on the moon within two years. Over the years, the project matured, and it took more time and money than anybody had expected. Kahn made a massive contribution to the project, which wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did without him. I hope people will be found to take it forward. I understand why he grew weary. The government isn’t part of it, it’s piggybacking.

“This is hard work and it’s no coincidence that only three nations have landed crafts on the moon so far,” Margalit continues. “If we become the fourth country to land on the moon, it will all have been worth it.”

Unrealistic goals

When Google kicked off the competition in 2010, one of the conditions was that the spacecraft lift off by 2014. Nobody made it and the company extended the deadline, a few times. Now the deadline is the end of March 2018, but that too could be put off.

Participants must be non-government entities (such as privately owned companies) that build and launch the craft into space, successfully land it on the moon, move it 500 meters along the lunar surface and get it to broadcast a video to Earth. Israel is contending against four other groups, from the U.S., Japan, India and an international group involving Brazil, Croatia, the U.S., India, Malaysia, the U.K. and Australia.

Among SpaceIL’s donors, aside from Kahn, who donated about a third of its money, are an Adelson family foundation, the businessman Sami Sagol, the Israel Space Agency (which belongs to the Ministry of Science) and the Weizmann Institute. Although a privately-initiated nonprofit, SpaceIL could be seen as a national endeavor. It presently has 50 employees – as well as 200 volunteers talking about the project in schools throughout Israel.

Assuming a spacecraft gets finished, it is supposed to be launched by SpaceX, though there may be some difficulty around the deadline, which was set at December 2017. That launch contract might yet fall through.