A scrappy Israeli team is trying to win millions for sending an unmanned mission to the moon.
During the Holocaust, Yariv Bash’s grandfather was forced to build V2 rockets for the Nazi army. Now Bash has his eyes on a rocket of his own: one that will take the first Israeli spacecraft to the moon.
Bash is one of the three co-founders of SpaceIL, the Israeli entrant in the Google Lunar Xprize, an international competition to send the first civilian mission to Earth’s nearest neighbor. The first team to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon, which then travels 500 meters and broadcasts images back to Earth, will take home a purse of $20 million.
With the strong support of the Israeli government and the backing of generous private donors, including billionaire investor Morris Kahn and casino magnate and political kingmaker Sheldon Adelson, SpaceIL is poised to make Israel the fourth lunar nation.
The planned SpaceIL mission, if it comes off, will also conduct a joint UCLA-Weizmann Institute of Science experiment to measure the changes in the moon’s magnetic field.
The end of December was the final cutoff for the competitors—scientists, engineers, and private entrepreneurs from around the world—to secure a launch contract on a rocket bound for orbit. Of the 29 teams who registered for the competition in 2010, five remain: the American Moon Express, Team Indus from India, Hakuto from Japan, the international Synergy Moon, and SpaceIL.
SpaceIL was the first team to obtain its ticket to the moon and will be launching its spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket produced by billionaire investor Elon Musks’s private aerospace company, SpaceX , by the end of 2017. As SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman explained, the agreement with SpaceX represents more than just a means of transport. “The fact that a serious company signs a contract with a group like us means that we know what we’re talking about,” he said. “That we’ve passed all their tests and that our craft stands up to all their requirements.”
However, SpaceIL’s moon mission almost didn’t happen, according to Bash, a bespectacled and balding 35-year-old electronics engineer and entrepreneur who recounted the story in the Tel Aviv offices of his drone-delivery startup, Flytrex. Having learned of the competition only in November 2009, two years after it began and only a few weeks before the deadline to register, he posted an invitation on his Facebook page: “Who wants to go to the moon?” Kfir Damari, 34, a friend and telecommunications engineer, answered the call. The next Saturday, the two met in a bar in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv, with aerospace engineer Yonatan Winetraub, and started plotting a way to the moon. On Dec. 31, the very last day to register, the three wired in the $50,000 entry fee and joined the competition.
“Space is the ultimate thing,” Bash said when asked what inspired him to join the Xprize moon race. “It’s something that is so hard to do, even today. In 2016, rockets still blow up; it’s still rocket science. This is one of the ultimate technological-engineering challenges.”
Despite other teams’ head starts, SpaceIL quickly advanced. It was the first team to design a landing craft, provisionally nicknamed “Sparrow,” that could use its engines to “hop” the required 500 meters over the moon’s surface rather than rely on a separate lunar rover to cover the distance. Seeing the elegance of this solution, Bash said, other teams followed suit.
One of the most important measures of SpaceIL’s success is its strong financial backing. Between government support—limited by competition rules to 10 percent of the project’s overall budget—and private donations, SpaceIL has raised $50 million of the $70 million that it estimates it will take to complete the mission; the launch alone costs $20 million. “Spacecraft don’t fly on hydrazine,” a common rocket propellant, Bash explained. “They fly on green fuel. If you look at the competition, we’ve raised more than double the next team.”
Read the whole story from 2017 in Tablet.