Israel's Moon Shot: Small Step for the Government, Giant Leap for Israeli Chutzpah

'Genesis' is on its way to making Israel the fourth country to reach the moon, thanks almost entirely to private funding

File photo: Falcon 9 launching the satellite to orbit from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), carrying Israel's Beresheet spacecraft, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, February 21, 2019.
HO/SPACEX/AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said at the beginning of Sunday's cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that "Israel made history" with the launch of a first Israeli spacecraft to the moon and spoke of "enormous pride and great emotion," was only one of many Israeli politicians all across the spectrum who celebrated Friday's SpaceIL launch, which, if successful, will let Israel into the exclusive club of countries – the United States, Russia and China – that have reached the moon.

But the Israeli mission to the moon was the fruit of a few private initiatives, almost the exact opposition of the American moonshot program launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a national undertaking. The Israeli government has never designated it a strategic goal or a national priority, and the undertaking was funded almost entirely by private investors and nongovernmental funds.

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Israeli rover Genesis ("Beresheet" in Hebrew) began with a Google competition. It was later taken over by a handful of billionaires, and got to the finish line with the Israel Aerospace Industries.

Three Israeli engineers, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub, decided to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize challenge, an international competition that began in 2007 with the offer of a $30 million prize. The rules required spacecraft built and launched by a civilian team without government funding.

Beresheet on its way to the moon

But from a small project by three engineers who wanted to send a spacecraft the size of a bottle to the land on the moon, the program grew into a huge project at a cost of $100 million. In 2010, the three engineers founded the nonprofit SpaceIL to manage the project.

The first billionaire to enter the picture was Morris Kahn, the founder of Golden Pages Israel and high-tech company Amdocs, who took the project under his wing and donated $40 million. Later, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson and Sami Sagol, the founder of Keter Plastic, also joined.

The SpaceIL project ran into many difficulties over the years. The three founders were moved out of the way and instead of managing the project, they focused on its educational aspects. Engineers and SpaceIL employees left the project, including the high-tech entrepreneur Yanki Margalit, who was chairman of the organization from its founding.

In 2017, Kahn, who took over from Margalit, announced he was resigning, in a bid to encourage others to join in the project and put up money, too, according to people close to him. Google called its competition off in March 2018 after having postponed the final deadline a number of times. The Israeli group is the first to launch a spacecraft to the moon out of those who decided to continue despite Google’s decision.

In the end, the initiative, which was perceived by the Israeli public as a national project, was funded almost entirely by private donations. The Science, Technology and Space Ministry gave a mere 10 million shekels ($2.8 million). Other public funding came from other public institutions involved in the project, such as the Weizmann Institute of Science.

File photo: IAI director of Space division Opher Doron speaks during a presentation by SpaceIL and IAI in Yehud, east of Tel Aviv, December 17, 2018.
Jack Guez/AFP

The Israeli government’s main contribution was in the form of cooperation in development between SpaceIL and state-owned IAI starting in 2013, according to Ido Antebi, SpaceIL’s CEO. "We bought equipment from various suppliers and the development work, assembly and testing we bought from IAI," said Antebi. "IAI engineers worked under a contract as they would for any other project, with the work paid for by the donations." IAI declined to state how much it received for the work its employees carried out for the project, the equipment and facilities provided.

IAI, whose annual research and development budget is $160 to $200 million, sees the few million dollars it was paid by SpaceIL project as a drop in the bucket. However, SpaceIL and IAI have an agreement concerning the intellectual property developed in the project, which may be used to build other spacecrafts commercially, said Opher Doron, the general manager of IAI’s space division. The governmental agency also probably enjoyed the extensive PR it received through the project.

Israeli "Apollo effect"

SpaceIL employed about 50 people at its peak, mostly engineers. The broader activities included about 200 volunteers, who contributed quite a lot of added value to the project. They involved over one million children in educational activities about the space project. The goal was to create an Israeli “Apollo effect,” increased interest in science and technology fields as a result of the space initiative.

The fact that the project began as a private initiative and not a governmental project is reflected clearly in its goals. The spacecraft carries time capsules with information about the project and team, a Bible and other materials donated by ordinary Israelis. All these will remain on the moon, along with the spacecraft, which is not designed to return to earth.

In addition, the spacecraft would also conduct first-of-its-kind scientific experiments that include measurements of the moon’s magnetic field, a cooperative endeavor of Weizmann Institute and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

For its part, IAI is reaping the fruits of the project it stumbled on to by chance. Its role in building the spacecraft and the technology developed resulted in an agreement signed a month ago with the German satellite company OHB SE. IAI will develop a landing craft for a large project of the European Space Agency being carried out by OHB.

Nimrod Sheffer, the CEO of IAI, said on the signing of the deal that the technological knowledge acquired in developing the Israeli spacecraft with SpaceIL would enable IAI to be an active partner in advanced outer space research.

Government role or not, the SpaceIL project is another example of Israeli chutzpah. While the superpowers are spending billions of dollars to spacecraft, Israel is on its way to the moon by thinking outside the box, using simple technologies and by exploiting flexible opportunities.