Confronted with the notion of Israel sending a spacecraft to the moon, as Yanki Margalit was one day two years ago, the high-tech millionaire recalled his options as one or the other: He could laugh, which he acknowledged was a reasonable temptation. Or he could do what he went ahead and did, putting up the $50,000 required to enter Google’s Lunar X Prize international space race. The entry fee was pocket change beside the $30 million it will take to put together the first soft lunar landing since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 returned with some soil samples in 1976.
“We were naive,” says Margalit of the initial estimates developed by Team SpaceIL.
“In the beginning we thought it would cost $8 million and the spaceship would be the size of a Coke bottle.” The reality turned out to be larger in every way: the unmanned craft Margalit’s team aims to land on the lunar surface before the end of 2015 looks more like a credenza.
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It’s still a relatively miniature spacecraft, but then Israel is a relatively small country. It’s also one used to punching above its weight, especially in the applied sciences and high tech, where miniaturization is a given. As the so-called Start-Up Nation, Israel ranks behind only the U.S. and China in companies listed on Nasdaq; it also ranks high in time its citizens spend online, which is where the lunar effort started. In November 2010, an engineer named Yariv Bash went on Facebook to ask if anyone was interested in being part of the Google contest. Another engineer, Kfir Damari, saw the post and said he would. A third, Yonatan Winetraub, got wind of the idea, and the three got together in a pub in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. “We sat down and on a napkin wrote the problems were are facing till today — launching the spaceship, the journey and then landing safely on the moon,” says Winetraub, 26. Someone thought to keep the napkin.
Much has changed since the original space race, a clean-room version of the Cold War. But the basic challenges remain: clear the earth’s atmosphere, break free of its orbit and find the trajectory that will snag the moon’s gravitational pull — a task the engineers liken to threading a needle from five stories up. Part one turned out to be the easiest: rather than build their version of a Saturn V rocket to escape the earth’s atmosphere, the Israelis plan to pay to hitch a ride on a rocket launching a commercial satellite. Once in earth’s orbit, their 300-lb. craft will fire its own jets to escape earth’s orbit and make the 238,600-mile journey to the moon. They expect the trip will take about a month. Once it’s slipped into lunar orbit, the craft might circle the moon for as long as two weeks, waiting for the most propitious moment to descend to the lunar surface — the most perilous 15 minutes of the enterprise. On Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong maneuvered the Eagle to avoid boulders in the Sea of Tranquility too small to show up on reconnaissance photos but big enough to upend the lunar lander. The Israeli spacecraft will not have that luxury, following a descent programmed before liftoff. To increase the odds of landing upright, some 200 high school students have been scouting landing spots; they’ve narrowed it down to a few dozen sites so far.
Involving students is a major justification for the effort, a nonprofit enterprise that, if it wins, will recover at most its costs — the total prize could reach $30 million. The effort is sponsored, in part, by the Israel Aerospace Industries, a military enterprise specializing in ballistic missiles. But as its chief pointed out on Israeli television last month, the project makes no particular sense in business or security terms — the main drivers for Israel’s high-tech sector. “It’s only prestige,” the executive said. “It’s about innovating and thinking long term.” To draw attention, Team SpaceIL has been inviting ordinary people to send their names and digital photos for a thumb drive that will be carried along; judging by the rate at which the late Armstrong’s footprints are degrading on the lunar surface, they’re offering a 10,000-year guarantee.
Thirty-three contestants paid to compete for the Lunar X Prize. Of the 23 considered still active, the Israelis see five as serious threats, including a number of American companies. The contest requires a “soft landing” — some moon shots were literally that, spacecraft launched at the moon and impact the surface at 3,000 m.p.h. Not only must the Lunar X entrant broadcast eight minutes of video after landing, the craft must then take off again — or, rather, “leap” some 1,700 ft., then transmit video for another eight minutes. The Israelis plan to launch in 2015, provided they can raise the $30 million. They’re two-thirds of the way there, Margalit says.
“Think about it,” Margalit tells TIME. “Three countries will have landed on the moon: the United States, Russia and Israel. What fun to be able to say that.”