Israel Competes to Become Fourth Country to Land on the Moon

Israeli team with $16 million in funding from Sheldon Adelson is vying to plant the fourth flag on the moon.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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The moon, moments after a total lunar eclipse.
The moon, moments after a total lunar eclipse.Credit: Reuters
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

It was a late November evening in 2010 and Yariv Bash, then a 30-year-old electronics and computer engineer, was at a friend’s house, shooting the breeze about outer space and rocket ships, as one does, when he first heard about the XPRIZE. “Why not join the competition to reach the moon?” the friend suggested, between shots of whiskey.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE, announced in 2007, set out the following challenge to geeks, makers and dreamers everywhere: Build a spacecraft, land it on the moon, make it travel 500 meters along the lunar surface and send back high-definition images and video to prove it all happened. Do all that and the grand prize of $20 million would be yours.

By the time Bash went to sleep that night he had registered an Internet domain name for his future Xprize team — SpaceIL — and was all ready to go hurdling 238,900 miles toward Earth’s only natural satellite.

Now all he needed was the team. And a plan. He turned, obviously, to Facebook.

“I saw this all go up on social media,” recalls Sivan Yitzhak, whose friend Kfir Damari was one of the first to respond to Bash and get sucked into the project. “Kfir and others changed their Facebook status to ‘who wants to go to the moon?’ and I was like ‘are these guys for real??’” she says. “But I also remembering thinking, ‘how cool,’ and ‘why not?’”

Registration for the competition, which included a $50,000 entry fee for each team, was in closing two weeks. The Israeli team, led by Bash, Damari and Yonatan Weintraub, got in right under the wire, scrounging donations from friends and supporters around the country.

SpaceIL has since raised a whopping $30 million and has grown from an ad hoc Facebook group to an operation of 30 employees (two-thirds of them engineers) and over 250 volunteers. Tel Aviv University donated office space, and Israel Aerospace Industries offered not only work space at its Yehud campus but also engineering and logistics assistance. Most recently, a seasoned CEO, Eran Privman, has taken the helm.

U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s foundation gave the team a $16.4 million grant. Additional major contributions have come from the likes of Amdocs founder Morris Khan, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Bezeq, a corporate sponsor. A crowd funding campaign raised more than $283,000 from over 800 donors across the globe. No other team, says Bash, has raised anywhere close to as much money.

SpaceIL is apparently not only the wealthiest of the teams, it’s also widely considered to be one of the front-runners. Four years after registration for the competition ended, most of the original 30-odd teams have either dropped out or joined forces. Of the 18 remaining teams, only four are regarded as serious contenders, according to publicly available information from XPRIZE: three U.S.-based teams and the sole Israeli team.

So, what’s the plan? It begins, explains SpaceIL’s director of business development Daniel Saat, with catching a lift. The idea is for the SpaceIL craft (at 136 kilograms and 100 centimeters by 70 centimeters, it’s about the size of a small dishwasher) to begin its journey by hitching a ride on either a commercial satellite or the spacecraft of a foreign space agency. It would then — this is the more complicated part — travel the rest of the way with the help of Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, a specialized optic navigation technology, at speeds of up to 6,900 kilometers per hour.

As it approaches the moon, the spacecraft will slow its engines until it is within 9 meters of the surface. It will then free-fall to the surface, engine-side up. To meet the next part of the challenge — traversing 500 meters along the moon’s surface — the SpaceIL craft will use the fuel left in its propulsion system to hop to the “finish line.” Rival teams are using a separate, purpose-built rover for the final leg of the journey.

Time is of the essence, prize-wise.

The original XPRIZE deadline for a moon landing — December 31, 2012 — has come and gone, and the new deadline — December 31, 2015 — is fast approaching. Unless that deadline is also extended, as rumor says it will be, the chances of SpaceIL or any of the other teams actually winning the race are slim to none. Launch service providers typically require reservations 24 months prior to the launch date, and none has been made yet.

But, stress Bash and others, in many ways SpaceIL has outgrown the competition and become something bigger. Defined and registered as an educational nonprofit, the team sees itself as having a double mission: It intends to land on the moon, of course, whether within the XPRIZE time frame or not, but it also exists today to inspire future generations and to get young Israelis excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

From the get-go, SpaceIL staff and volunteers have visited classrooms around the country and shared their XPRIZE plans and dreams with over 70,000 children — religious and secular, boys and girls, Arabs and Jews.

Yitzhak, that friend of cofounder Damari, is one of these volunteers. On days off from her marketing job at a gaming company in Tel Aviv, she heads out to discuss optic navigation and hazard detection systems with the likes of — as was the case on a recent Friday — 120 fidgety fourth-graders in Ramat Gan.

“What was the first country in the world to land on the moon?” she calls out from the front of the classroom. “Russia!” screams a new immigrant in sunglasses. “A-M-E-R-I-C-A!” screech half a dozen others. “My dad says Hollywood staged the landing,” announces one boy with adhesive bandages on his bruised knees. “I once went to America and visited the space museum,” says another boy, apropos of nothing in particular. “Students! Order in the classroom! And take off those sunglasses,” scold the teachers above the din.

“Who was the second?” Who was the third?” Yitzhak presses on, showing videos of moon landings — by the United States, by Russia and, just last year, by China. “Did Neil Armstrong leave the flag on the moon?” they ask. “Do all astronauts speak English?” they want to know. “Is it scary to go there?” they wonder.

“And who will be the fourth to land on the moon?” Yitzhak continues. Dozens of increasingly excited kids jump to their feet, knocking over their plastic chairs. Responses range from “America” and “We already said that, idiot!” to “Mexico,” “Australia” and “Greece.” “Students! Order in the classroom! And raise your hand when you want to speak!” call out the teachers.

“Israel!” yells a redhead in pigtails and boots.

“That’s right,” says Yitzhak, applauding the answer. “I am here because I am part of a group trying reach the moon.”

“I want to do that too,” says the girl. A couple of others nod. “Join us,” answers the SpaceIL volunteer. “Come along. We are going to do it.”

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