Israeli scientists count down to first private moon mission

A group of young Israeli scientists are hoping to make history by landing the first Israeli-made private spacecraft on the moon.

al-monitor Israeli scientists stand next to an unmanned spacecraft an Israeli team plans to launch into space and land on the moon, in Yahud, Israel, July 10, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

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private entrepreneurs, israeli technology industries, nasa, science, space, scientists

Feb 21, 2019

The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet will be launched toward the moon from Cape Canaveral tomorrow, Feb. 22. Beresheet, Hebrew for “Genesis,” will be the smallest spacecraft ever dispatched to the moon, but its small size is not the lunar lander's only unique feature. It will also be the first such spacecraft to be launched by a private group of individuals — Yariv Bash, Yonatan Winetraub and Kfir Damari — and not by a superpower or even a state. The three young engineers will control their craft from their company headquarters in the town of Yahud, near Israel international Ben-Gurion Airport.

The Bersheet project began in 2010 as an entry in Google’s international Lunar XPRIZE contest, which offered $20 million for a winning project to place a probe on the moon. The three Israeli applicants formed a non-profit organization, calling it SpaceIL, with the double goal of landing the first Israeli craft on the moon and inspiring young Israelis to undertake scientific and technological studies. They subsequently hooked up with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and raised funds from business tycoons such as Morris Kahn, Sheldon Adelson, Steven Grand and other donors.

On Jan. 23, 2018, after a year-long extension of the deadline, the XPRIZE Foundation announced that none of the 34 teams from around the world had won the competition and landed a spacecraft on the moon by the deadline. Nonetheless, the three Israelis decided to forge ahead, hoping their spacecraft would land on the moon on April 11, 2019, and make Israel the fourth country in the world after the United States, Russia and China to plant a flag on the moon.

“The mission placing Israel alongside world powers will provide a tremendous impetus for Israel’s burgeoning space industry,” Tel Aviv University researcher Adi Nino-Greenberg told Al-Monitor. “This is an extraordinary achievement for a small group of young people entering the space industry, mobilizing a great many other dreamers for their enterprise, setting a target and attaining it: Building a spacecraft from scratch and dispatching it to the moon. And it was all accomplished by a privately funded and executed initiative. This is source of great pride and respect.”

The deputy head of the SpaceIL project and director of its ground operations, Eran Schmidt, is convinced that the future lies in “new space” — that is, a private spaceflight industry. “The world understands that government programs alone are insufficient to generate achievements in space, and that is why the future lies in non-governmental initiatives,” he told Al-Monitor. “That is why NASA signed a contract two months ago with private companies to deliver science experiments to the surface of the moon, and to eventually fly astronauts there in cooperation with private industry. Happily, we will be the first civilian group to land a spacecraft on the moon, but there will be many others after us. This story is just beginning.”

Nino-Greenberg is also convinced that the space industry is moving away from state control. “Private space companies currently have registered capital of some $400 billion and counting,” she said. “They are many start-ups developing nanosatellite constellations, mostly in the communications field. These are expected to become an alternative to … costly communication satellites."

The cost of the SpaceIL project is estimated at $95 million, about 10% of NASA’s investment in sending a man to the moon 50 years ago. According to Nino-Greenberg, the cost is a dramatic innovation. “The cheaper it is, the more launches there will be, the more research, study and exploitation of space — all of which will benefit humanity. For example, the Falcon 9 rocket [that will launch Beresheet] is a multi-use launcher. According to Elon Musk’s vision, a day after the launch, the Flacon 9 should be ready for another launch. This is also why there is cooperation today in space flights and this is also why Beresheet will be flying to the moon together with an Indonesian communications satellite.”

“The entire scientific world has its eyes on us,” said Schmidt. “The next thing will be low-cost travel to space and we are proving it is possible, and this is already generating great international interest in the Israeli space industry. Less than a month ago, based on the technology we developed, the IAI signed a contract with a German company working for the European Space Agency to build lunar spacecraft for scientific research.”

Above all, SpaceIL is an educational initiative. Had they won the contest, its founders planned to donate their $20 million prize to space projects for Israeli schoolchildren. “We would like to create an ‘Apollo Effect’ — all the American success stories of the 1990s stemmed from the inspiration generated by the moon landing several decades earlier,” Schmidt explained. “It raised the level of all the American research. We want to create a ‘Beresheet effect’ here in order to attract young people to study hard sciences.”

Schmidt already considers the project a success, even if the landing does not go as planned. “From an educational point of view, we have succeeded,” he said. “So far hundreds of our volunteers have already met a million children and exposed them to the story of our aircraft. That is a fantastic educational achievement.”

Nino-Greenberg is also excited about the program’s educational potential. “I myself am developing space study programs and teaching children about space exploration, the wonders of the universe and, of course, the Beresheet spacecraft,” she said. “I see their eyes shining and I know that one or more of these pairs of eyes belong to a future scientist who will achieve progress in this field. The space exploration field has undergone dramatic change, and if we want to lead it, we have to raise a curious young generation hungering for progress in this area, young people that will integrate STEM studies. The future lies in space, the future lies with the younger generation that will explore space and discover more about the space in which we live. They may be the ones who will pave the way for human habitation outside our system.”

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