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Sunday, April 5, 2020

SpaceIL’s Kfir Damari Looks to the Stars and Beyond

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Three engineers walk into a bar.

It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but in 2010, 25-year-old electrical engineer Kfir Damari met friends Yariv Bash and Yonatan Winetraub at a bar in Holon to discuss sending an Israeli spacecraft to the moon. 

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“When we sat down, it was to see if there [was] some kind of logical plan to make it happen,” Damari told the Journal. “The concept started from an international competition called the Google Lunar XPrize, which prompted Yariv to write the Facebook post: ‘Who wants to go to the moon?’ The idea was that you had to land an unmanned, privately funded spacecraft on the moon. This led to the creation of SpaceIL.”

At the time, the three friends thought the entire operation would cost $8 million and take two years. In the end, it ended up costing $100 million and took nine years. This led to a historic moment for Israel on Feb. 22, when SpaceIL launched its lunar lander Beresheet (Hebrew for “In the beginning”) at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Unfortunately, on April 11, the spacecraft suffered a last-minute failure during its descent and crashed on the moon. “I like to say that Israel was the first country in history that had the chutzpah to try to land the first time in getting to the moon,” Damari said.

Growing up, Damari was never one of those kids who looked up at the stars and dreamed of traveling to space. “I started [computer] programming at the age of 6, wrote my first virus at 11,” he said. “Even as an adult, most of my professional life was more in cybersecurity and computer networks. I actually only got into the whole concept of space through SpaceIL.”

After completing his Israeli army service in an elite intelligence corps focusing on cybersecurity, Damari obtained degrees in communication systems engineering at Ben-Gurion University, which is where he met Bash and Winetraub. 

“After SpaceIL’s moon landing, parents and educators came up to me and told me that their kids or grandchildren started crying, and this led to deep conversations on the meaning of success and that in order to succeed, you need to overcome a lot of challenges.” — Kfir Damari

The three raised the $50,000 Lunar XPrize registration fee in six weeks, with the help of the Israel Space Agency and Israel Aerospace Industries, and submitted preliminary blueprints of the spacecraft just in time for the competition’s deadline.

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Israeli billionaire entrepreneur Morris Kahn, who went on to become SpaceIL’s chairman, donated more than $43 million to the project. 

Over the years, SpaceIL moved from an office at Tel Aviv University to Yehud, home of the Israel Aerospace Industries space facility. The three-man startup developed into a core group of 100 people and more than 100 active volunteers. For Damari, the biggest challenge was not only building a spacecraft but inspiring the next generation in Israel and around the world to think differently about science and technology. 

“Kids were the ones who were really inspired by this,” Damari said. “When we were doing lectures, you could see the sparks of wonder in their eyes. What actually made SpaceIL work were those kids going to their parents and telling them that they heard an amazing story that an Israeli spacecraft is going to the moon.” 

That enthusiasm led to SpaceIL creating an educational department, which had more than a million kids volunteering over eight years, mostly in Israel but also in New York and Los Angeles. 

The liftoff of the first nongovernmental mission to the moon, and the first to use a commercial launch, was watched live by tens of thousands of people on Facebook and YouTube. “I think we were working to make that happen,” Damari said. “The biggest goal wasn’t getting to the moon, it was the impact on Earth. It really inspired people worldwide beyond our imagination.” 

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Even though Beresheet crash-landed on the moon, Damari believes he and his colleagues were successful in their mission. 

“In a way, you can say that we hard landed, not soft landed, but if you look at the broader vision, I think that was what we actually were able to get amazing results with,” Damari said. “After the landing, parents and educators came up to me and told me that their kids or grandchildren started crying, and this led to deep conversations on the meaning of success and that in order to succeed, you need to overcome a lot of challenges. So from an educational perspective, it was actually a better outcome and impact.”

Aside from SpaceIL, Damari also is the co-founder of TabooKey, a cybersecurity startup. Between the launch and the landing, the CEO of SpaceIL asked Damari to come back full time to help SpaceIL move to the next phase after reaching the moon. Now, in conjunction with TabooKey, Damari is also the vice president of education for SpaceIL.

“We now have escape rooms in both Israel and the States where families are faced with challenges needed to get a spacecraft ready for launch,” Damari said. “Today we are looking at building another spacecraft, and I am very excited for the opportunity to take a nanosatellite and release it around the moon and have the first Israeli orbiter around the moon.”  

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