Israel’s Mission to the Moon: Can a Small Country Win a Big Prize?

Confronted with the notion of Israel sending a spacecraft to the moon, Yanki Margalit put up the $50,000 required to enter Google’s Lunar X Prize international space race

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Alon Hadar

From left: Kfir Damari, Yonatan Winetraub and Yariv Bash, three of SpaceIL's founders, with a model of the spacecraft they aim to land on the surface of the moon

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.

(MORE: Space Exploration)

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.

(MORE: China Sets 5th Manned Space Mission for Summer)

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.”

MORE: Private SpaceX Rocket Launched to Space Station 

9 comments
KristinJohanssen
KristinJohanssen

Israel trying to do something because of monetary incentive and handouts?  

color me shocked.

TimRobinson
TimRobinson

@KristinJohanssen you'll probably be more shocked when they claim it as their holy right, and put up a virtual fence

All in the name of their security borne paranoia

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada like.author.displayName 1 Like

It's not an Israeli gevernment initiative. These people involved (I know some personally) are private high-tech entrerperneurs who committ their private money to go beyond new frontiers deriven by personal motivation. They don't need finantial incentives to indulge in the challenge, and the handouts we leave to misfits who get satisfaction from displaying their emptiness on Time's billboard - between visits to the dole line. Now you can go back to subjects you actually understand, just don't overdose. 

eetom
eetom like.author.displayName 1 Like

If the Israelis do land on the moon, will they declare that part of the moon as part of Israel's territory?  Or, are they secretly preparing for the days when they will be crowded out by the ever expanding population of Arabs?  If that happens they have no choice but to migrate to, you got it, the moon.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

That's unfair, comparing Israeli high-tech industry with Arab baby making potency. But no worries, we will land on the moon before you'll be able to land in the first Arab democracy.

TimRobinson
TimRobinson

@YehudaElyada how far & how high would Israel get if US financial tithes were rescinded?? Like say, India, Israels space ambitions ignore the needs of their own in return for the kudos for the few... Without that support Israel couldn't afford a Go-Kart

Bobw57
Bobw57

@YehudaElyada It is great to hear good news, but it is a disgrace to read all this BS from these ignorants & pathetics people. Israel is a poweful country. Israel is a Technological advanced nation. On the other hand, these people (the bashers) live in the neverland of their stupid mind. Israel is the Jewel of the ME, and soon to be a exporter of natural resources. Anthing else these ignorants want to know about the State of israel?

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

1. It's private money, earned by innovation in high-tech, not government budget. The fact that EVERY American high-tech enterprise has an Israeli R&D center is an indisputable testimony to the quality of Israeli engineers, not the availability of "financial tithes".

2. Get some fact before you rumble. Israel GDP per capita is 65% of USA's. India's is 3%. Some difference! And the social security net in Israel is far more rubost than the American.

3. The USA subsdizes the Israeli defence purchases from American industry as a monitary compensation for forcing Israel to let go of strategic teritory in Sinai. A similar subsidery is given to the Egyptian army, the power base of tyranny and corruption on the other side of the border.

4. USA's investment in enabling Israel's security in infinitisimally small compared to the cost of direct intervention in the fight against terror. About one tenth of one percent of the cost of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan - not to mention the cost in blood.

4. Israel is too small to have Go-Kart lanes. We drive Toyotas, BMWs and Chevrolets (too many of them...) on normal roads. 

TimRobinson
TimRobinson

@YehudaElyada and your responses show why 2000 yrs of persecution and Israel go hand in hand. Like many deservedly lost civilisations, this worlds society has more time for Arabs living under a Fascist like existence. Policy is only born from the living memory