An Israeli nonprofit aiming to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon has turned to crowdfunding in a desperate attempt to keep the ambitious project running.
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SpaceIL has acknowledged that the project will be forced to close unless $30 million is raised for the trial stage. The spacecraft, also called SpaceIL, is said to be in the last stages of the assembly process.
“We are at a critical juncture in the life of the project, said SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman. “It is very unfortunate, however, that if we don’t manage to raise the capital immediately, we won’t be able to continue operations and seven years of pioneering Israeli development and hard work will go down the drain.”
Following the crisis, Israel’s Science, Technology and Space Ministry has committed millions of shekels to the project in an attempt to avert its closure – despite the prospect that the project might literally never get off the ground.
The Science Ministry said it “intends to stand behind all of its understandings with SpaceIL and provide about 7.5 million shekels [$2.1 million] in addition to the 2 million shekels that have already been provided.”
The Space IL nonprofit was founded in 2010 by three young engineers – Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub – to participate in a competition organized by Google, which includes a $20 million prize for the first group of contestants to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. SpaceIL grew over the years and now has 50 staffers. Most of its employees are engineers, while a further 10 are involved in education. Reports from the organization that were filed by the Registrar of Nonprofits show that 2016 saw a sharp 65 percent drop in the organization’s fundraising – from 70 million shekels in 2015 to 25 million shekels last year.
This coincided with a steep increase in SpaceIL’s development costs, which more than doubled: From 21.6 million shekels in 2015 to 45.6 million in 2016.
Most of the increase was due to equipment and software expenses for the spacecraft and for payments to outside engineers, which rose to 23.3 million shekels (up from 7.3 million shekels in 2015).
Though the salaries of the five most senior officials at SpaceIL didn’t collectively place a substantial burden on the budget, they have also risen substantially in recent years. The CEO’s annual salary jumped from 71,000 shekels in 2011 to 400,000 in 2016. Privman is not the highest-paid employee: The salary of a vice president, whose name is not provided in the organization’s public reports, went from 72,000 shekels a year in 2011 to 620,000 last year.
A considerable portion of SpaceIL’s operations has been devoted to educational work, in an effort to encourage young people to study science and technology – as occurred in the United States when the “space race” with the Soviet Union was announced in the 1960s. SpaceIL said its volunteers have spoken in front of 500,000 children around the country.
Since its founding, SpaceIL has raised about $55 million. It was an early leader in the Google competition, and initially scheduled its moon launch for October 2014. But when Google realized the deadlines it had set were overly ambitious, the launch date was repeatedly deferred.
The latest competition deadline has been set for March 2018. SpaceIL officials said completion of the spacecraft, which is being constructed at an Israel Aerospace Industries facility, requires an urgent injection of funds by the end of this year.
In addition to the financial problems SpaceIL is facing, billionaire businessman Morris Kahn has decided to leave the project after serving as its chairman for the past 18 months.
Privman said Kahn’s decision was made to enable the organization to more effectively raise funds from the government and private donors, saying Kahn’s role as donor, in addition to being chairman, interfered with fundraising. Thirteen other senior SpaceIL officials have also left the organization recently.