How Israel’s Moon Lander Got to the Launchpad
It started in 2010 with a Facebook post.
“Who wants to go to the moon?” wrote Yariv Bash, a computer engineer.
A couple of friends, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub responded, and the three met at a bar in Holon, a city south of Tel Aviv. At 30, Mr. Bash was the oldest.
“As the alcohol levels in our blood increased, we became more determined,” Mr. Winetraub recalled.
They formed a nonprofit, SpaceIL, to undertake the task. More than eight years later, the product of their dreams, a small spacecraft called Beresheet, sits on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Launch is scheduled for 8:45 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday.
If the mission succeeds, it will be the first time that a private company has gone to the moon. It will also be a point of pride for Israel. Until now, only governmental space agencies of three superpower nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union and China — have accomplished an intact landing on the lunar surface.
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The original goal was to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which was offering a $20 million grand prize for the first privately financed venture to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon. The founders initially envisioned a tiny lander that would weigh only a dozen pounds, cost just $10 million and make the trip by the end of 2012.
The challenge turned out to be much harder and much more expensive.
“We didn’t imagine, I think, how much time and effort it would take,” Mr. Damari said.
After several extensions, the deadline for the Google Lunar X Prize passed a year ago without a winner. Even without the $20 million prize, SpaceIL persisted. Unlike many of the other competing teams that wanted to build profitable businesses, SpaceIL had given itself a mission, to inspire students in Israel to take an interest in science and engineering.
“This is our bigger vision,” Mr. Damari said. SpaceIL would build the first Israeli spaceship to travel far from Earth, but for today’s students, “It's their job to build the next one,” he said.
As part of SpaceIL’s parsimonious approach, Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, is tagging along aboard the SpaceX rocket with an Indonesian communications satellite as well as a small experimental satellite for the United States Air Force.
Once in space, Beresheet will not take the quick, direct path to the moon. That would require a fuel-guzzling firing of a large engine to break out of Earth orbit and then another to slow down at the moon. Instead, with several engine firings, the spacecraft will slowly adjust its orbit, stretching to the outermost point until the moon’s gravity pulls it into lunar orbit
That is a long and winding, four million mile-long journey to reach a destination that is a quarter million miles away.
In April, it is to land at a lava plain named Mare Serenitatis, or the Sea of Tranquillity. An instrument built by the Weizmann Institute of Science will measure the moon’s magnetic fields as it approaches, and that data could help give clear hints about the moon’s iron core.
Beresheet is also carrying a durable backup of humanity’s knowledge in the form of a disc provided by the Arch Mission Foundation, containing 30 million pages of information, as well as a time capsule with Israeli cultural symbols and a Bible.
Within a few days of its landing, Beresheet is expected to succumb to the heat of lunar noon, because the spacecraft isn’t equipped with many redundant backup systems that are required on most spacecraft. Then, its mission will end.
Despite the faster, cheaper, riskier approach, the price tag ended up at $100 million, not $10 million, and the spacecraft bulked up to 1,300 pounds including fuel. The SpaceIL founders point out that this is still much cheaper and smaller than what a space agency like NASA would build.
“It’s very refreshing in many ways,” said Opher Doron, the space division general manager at Israel Aerospace Industries, which partnered with SpaceIL. “It also puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on the project team.”
The United States and the former Soviet Union sent robotic landers to the moon beginning in 1966, part of the space race that culminated with the Apollo 11 astronauts stepping foot on the moon in 1969. In 2013, China became the third nation to send a spacecraft to the moon, and this year, it became the first to land one on the moon’s far side.
Back in November 2010, it was a rush for the SpaceIL founders just to get to the starting line. The Google competition had been announced three years earlier. About 30 teams had already entered, and the deadline for submissions was the end of the year. From friends and family, Mr. Bash, Mr. Damari and Mr. Winetraub scrounged $50,000 for the entry fee, and on Dec. 31, they sent in the money and the paperwork with less than two hours to spare.
From the beginning, their pitch was geared to philanthropists, not venture capitalists.
“It’s a very different story than a commercial company trying to explain how they’re going to return the investment of the investors,” Mr. Bash said. “It’s one of the best decisions we made in the beginning.”
One of the people who heard their presentation was Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications billionaire. “I gave them $100,000, no questions asked,” Mr. Kahn said, “and I said, ‘Start.’”
Mr. Kahn said at the beginning he just wanted to help. “Eventually, not only I got sucked in, I sucked myself in,” he said. “I got excited by this project.”
Mr. Kahn became president of SpaceIL and recruited other investors including Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino billionaire and major donor to the Republican Party in the United States.
As a nonprofit, SpaceIL also tapped the energy of volunteers. “If you were interested in space and wanted to do something beyond your day job, you could volunteer and give some of your time,” Mr. Winetraub said.
As full-fledged development started, Mr. Kahn brought in Eran Privman, who had been an executive at his companies, to run the organization.
But as the 2018 Lunar X Prize deadline approached, the effort appeared doomed. SpaceIL still needed $30 million more. In late 2017, Mr. Kahn resigned. A fund-raising plea by Mr. Privman at the end of that year fell short.
A few months later, Mr. Kahn returned, replacing Mr. Privman with Ido Anteby, a longtime manager at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, to shepherd the final construction and testing of Beresheet.
Mr. Kahn agreed to provide any remaining money needed.
And now SpaceIL is approaching its end in a few months. “A day after, all of us will need to look for a job,” said Eran Shmidt, deputy manager of SpaceIL.
Mr. Winetraub joked, “This is a great job description. If it's successful, then you're fired.”
However, commercial interest in the moon has revived during the Trump administration. In November, NASA announced the selection of nine companies, including several former Lunar X Prize contestants, that will compete for contracts to take small payloads to the moon. The European Space Agency is considering a similar program.
Israel Aerospace Industries has signed an agreement with OHB System, a German satellite manufacturer, to compete for the European work, and Mr. Doron said the company is in discussion about collaborating with some of the NASA-selected companies.
The SpaceIL founders have largely moved on. Mr. Winetraub is now a graduate student at Stanford, pursuing a doctorate in cancer research. Mr. Bash is chief executive of Flytrex, a company developing drones to deliver consumer goods. Mr. Damari is chief product and strategy officer for Tabookey, a cybersecurity start-up.
When they started SpaceIL at the bar, they were all single. “We were in a really different place back then,” Mr. Damari said.
This week, he is in Florida to watch the launch with his wife and two children. “I never imagined my big boy is five years old and actually the age he will remember,” Mr. Damari said.
Kenneth Chang has been at The Times since 2000, writing about physics, geology, chemistry, and the planets. Before becoming a science writer, he was a graduate student whose research involved the control of chaos. @kchangnyt
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