November 19, 2018

Episode 92 – Taking Israel to the Moon

Yariv Bash had a simple idea: taking Israel to the moon, for the first time. To pursue his new dream he quit a luxurious job in the prime ministers office, and founded the NGO SpaceIL. Together with his co-founders, they quickly joined Google’s spaceX competition, battling with groups from all around the world to be the first to send a spacecraft to the moon.Together with his co-founders, they quickly joined Google’s spaceX competition, battling with groups from all around the world to be the first to send a space ship to the moon.

For many years, spaceIL was leading the competition. But then something unexpected happened. Bash, an enthusiast of extreme sports, had a severe ski accident, which left him on a wheelchair.

Yariv Bash joins us today to talk about Israel’s race to the Moon, and his journey race to get his old life back.

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An Israeli ‘Apollo Effect’?

The schoolchildren hung on Daniel Saat’s every word as he spoke about orbits, atmospheres, propulsion and moon hopping — not the same as moonwalking.

As the director of business development for SpaceIL — Israel’s project to send a micro-spaceship to the moon — Saat and founder Yariv Bash had traveled from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 on a whirlwind trip organized by Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. Their trip included a visit to about 150 elementary and middle school pupils at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. 

Handing out prizes to students who asked questions, Saat did his best to describe the spacecraft SpaceIL is building in terms that little nonscientists could understand.

“Our spacecraft is about the size of your washing machine at home,” he said. “The bigger and heavier it is, the more expensive it is, so the smaller we can make our spacecraft, the more efficient and cheaper the ride to outer space will be.”

Bash, a Tel Aviv native, founded Space IL in 2010 as a response to Google’s Lunar X Prize competition, which challenges private companies to land a craft on the surface of the moon, travel 500 meters above, below, or on its surface and send back proof — a video feed — to Earth. The first team to complete the challenge before the end of 2015 will win $20 million. Other cash incentives are included for, among other things, operating at night and landing near an Apollo site. 

Bash and Saat are shooting for the top prize, but even if they don’t win, Saat said, SpaceIL intends to land a craft on the moon. That would make Israel the fourth nation to ever successfully complete the 238,900-mile journey, behind the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.

Saat spoke proudly of how cost effectively SpaceIL is traveling to outer space. Comparing it to America’s 1969 moon landing, he asked students to guess how much that mission would cost in today’s dollars. The children threw out guesses: $10 million? $50 million? $100 million? $1 billion?

Nope. The Apollo 11 mission, which cost about $25.4 billion in 1969, would cost closer to $200 billion today, based on numbers provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Although SpaceIL doesn’t have to worry about getting a man on the moon, its budget is a meager $36 million. And keeping the spacecraft small, about 300 pounds, by skirting things like a rover, will help keep the project within budget.

Dozens of hands went up throughout SpaceIL’s presentation, as students asked questions about outer space and the project. Jacqueline Englanoff, a Hillel sixth-grader, was intrigued by SpaceIL’s method of sending back information to Earth — antennae, instead of satellites, to help make the relatively small craft a bit lighter. 

Yonah Berenson, another sixth-grader, was amused by how the Israeli scientists plan to navigate the surface of the moon once the craft lands. Instead of navigating the required 500 meters using a rover — complete with wheels, which every other competitor is using — SpaceIL will use “the hop,” which involves landing and then taking off again with the fuel remaining in the propulsion system, landing 500 meters away.

“It was very cool,” Berenson said. “I liked how they [said] that the spacecraft was going to hop on the moon — sort of funny.”

The awe that the presentation inspired in the students is a miniature effect of what the SpaceIL team hopes will happen in Israel if it succeeds in the moon landing — a potential Israeli version of the “Apollo effect,” which rejuvenated Americans’ interest in mathematics and engineering following Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. Saat envisions Jews in Israel and around the world glued to their television sets when SpaceIL makes its trip to the moon — between late 2015 and mid-2016, if Google extends the deadline, which many think it will.

Saat told the students that once the craft leaves Earth’s orbit, it will enter that of the moon, and will be speeding along at an amazing two miles per second. Next, as Bash said, will come the most difficult part: the landing.

“You can’t really simulate it here on earth,” he said. 

Slowing the craft down from two miles per second to a speed that will allow it to safely land will be no easy feat, but when the mission reaches that point, years of work and millions of dollars will hinge on the precise execution of a few minutes, or seconds.

“It will be something that only superpowers have done before,” Saat said. “We hope that we won’t join the club of … countries that have crashed things into the moon.”

SpaceIL: Israel’s race to the moon

One day in 2015, a small Israeli spacecraft will land on and reconnoiter the moon, joining the United States and former Soviet Union in the world’s most exclusive extraterrestrial club.

That vision is not fantasy or chauvinistic braggadocio, but the sober prediction of Israel’s most experienced engineers and space scientists.

According to the leaders of the SpaceIL (for Israel) project, the unmanned micro-spaceship will pack more instrumentation into a smaller and lighter capsule than ever achieved before.

During a visit to Los Angeles in mid-February, Yariv Bash, founder and CEO of SpaceIL, and Ronna Rubinstein, the chief of staff, outlined the genesis, scope and anticipated impact of the moon mission.

In late 2010, Bash heard about the Google Lunar X competition, which offered awards up to $30 million for the first team to land a robotic craft on the moon that would perform several complex missions. For one, the craft had to move 500 meters (1,640 feet) from its landing site to explore the moon’s surface – or send out a search vehicle to do so – and beam high-definition videos back to earth.

Bash, an electronics and computer engineer, said that SpaceIL will traverse the distance in one spectacular jump. SpaceIL, by the way, is only an interim name and when the time comes will be replaced with an official designation.

Initial names suggested by the project staff include Golda, for the former Israeli prime minister, Ramon, for Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished in the Columbia shuttle disaster, and Hatikvah, Hebrew for “hope” and the title of the Israeli national anthem.

As soon as Bash absorbed the details of the Google competition, he posted one sentence on Facebook, asking, “Who is coming with me to the moon?” Among the first respondents was Rubinstein, a lawyer who now oversees the project’s organization, marketing and fundraising.

The total estimated cost for the project will be $30 million, of which $20 million has been raised so far, primarily from industry and private contributors. The Israeli government has allotted funds for 10 percent of the total cost, the maximum a government can put up under the contest rules.


Israeli President Shimon Peres visits SpaceIL. Photo courtesy SpaceIL

According to Israeli statistics, the government money will be well spent, since for every $1 invested in Israel’s 10 satellites and other high-tech research, $7 are returned in civilian and commercial applications.

The prize for the winning entry is $20 million, with another $10 million available in bonus prizes for accomplishing different aspects of the mission.

But it’s not the prize money that is driving the 11 full-time staff members and some 300 professionals who are volunteering their services evenings and weekends, after finishing their regular day jobs. In any case, any money won will go to schools to enhance math and technology programs.

“What counts for us is the impact the moon landing will have on Israelis and Jews around the world, to show what Israel is and what it can do,” Bash said.

Most important is to instill both pride and scientific curiosity in Israeli youngsters, Bash added. Together with the Weizmann Institute of Science, the project has launched a nationwide program of high school visits, which so far has involved 27,000 students.

Plans also call for lectures and exhibits in Diaspora communities, and Bash and Rubinstein will address a plenary session at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC during the first week of March.

Other key partners in the project are Israel Aerospace Industries, Tel Aviv University, Technion, Israeli Space Agency, Ramon Foundation and private companies like Rafael and Bezeq.

The Israeli spacecraft, whatever its final name, will compete against 24 other entries, of which 11 will be launched by various U.S. teams. Other competitors will come mainly from Europe and some from South American countries, but none from China, or, for that matter, Iran.

Early favorites are entries from the United States, Israel and Spain, Bash said.

Israel’s main strength, he noted, “lies in its nano-miniaturized technology, and SpaceIL will be the smallest craft ever sent into space.”

At liftoff, it will weigh 120 kilograms (264 pounds), but on landing, after burning off its fuel, it will weigh less than 40 kilograms (88 pounds). To get into orbit, SpaceIL will piggyback onto a commercial rocket, either American or Russian, at a cost of between $3 million to $5 million.

To Israelis watching the moon landing from 239,000 miles away, “it will be the most exciting reality show of all,” Bash hopes.

The impact on Israelis, especially young people, would be similar to that created in 1969 by astronaut Neil Armstrong as he descended from the Apollo spacecraft to the moon’s surface, proclaiming, “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Israeli supporters of SpaceIL already have their own inspirational motto, taken from Theodor Herzl’s words as he prophesized the future creation of a Jewish state.

“Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agada” – “If you will it, it is no dream.”

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