3By Michele Justic

Its citizenry has turned deserts into forests. It boasts the world’s oldest archaeological sites and the newest inventions. Should it come as any surprise that Israel is joining the space race full force?

America’s space program from the 1960s is famous for its brave astronauts, but surprisingly, the computers involved were more primitive than our modern day cell phones. SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit formed in 2010, is at the forefront of technology and will not involve any astronauts in orbit. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, “A small hop for a spacecraft, a giant leap for mankind.”

The plans began when engineers Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari, and Yonatan Winetraub entered the Google Lunar X Prize (GLPX) competition with the dream of landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon. Though coming into the race two years after most competitor nations, the nearly 20 full-time staff, 250 volunteers, and supporters are all confident that SpaceIL will accomplish its unprecedented mission. Out of 33 original teams, 18 remain, and SpaceIL is considered a top contender.

As supporter President Shimon Peres told a recent audience, “Science is not just knowing; science is knowing to dare. Not just knowledge, but chutzpah. We Jews were not deprived in either.” SpaceIL can boast many technological successes due to this knowledge-chutzpah combination. In 2011, they conducted testing of the spacecraft’s navigation sensor. To finalize the spacecraft’s design, they completed several design reviews. According to their recently revamped website, “In December 2013, SpaceIL purchased the largest and most significant part of the spacecraft: the propulsion system (the engine and the fuel tanks), which comprises 80% of the spacecraft’s mass. This is a huge milestone on the way to the moon.”

To maximize fuel efficiency, the project involves a minimal size spacecraft in which components have dual roles. Without the benefit of a human astronaut (or “star sailor”), its success is 100% dependent on the optic navigation technology, which also doubles as its camera, to transmit high definition photos back to Earth. To conserve mass, the 300-pound, dishwasher-sized craft is expected to hop 500 meters away from its original landing site, using the same propulsion system used for the landing. The website notes, “SpaceIL will be the first ever to use SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) technology in space. This optic navigation technology, often used in robotics and autonomous vehicles, will be used during the spacecraft’s journey to the moon. There is no GPS in space, and the spacecraft has to auto-navigate all the way (384,000 km) to the moon, so SpaceIL has developed innovative SLAM navigation technologies to help us get there.” Intense preparation is key, and SpaceIL has partnered with the Weizmann Institute to take new measurements of the moon and hopes its various algorithms and planning will lead to the success of the mission.

At this point, one item to be determined is the launch site. Israel’s small size does not lend itself to this aspect, which requires a large open area. They are hoping to piggyback on another craft launch and to announce the launch site in the near future.

SpaceIL estimates the project will cost a total of $36 million, $500,000 for fuel alone, yet a fraction of the cost of governmental space programs. They currently have approximately $20 million in cash and in-kind support already raised. A generous donation from American philanthropist Sheldon Adelson was a game-changer and allowed them to speed up production. Funds have also been raised from over thirty large to midsize businesses in Israel and around the world. Crowdsourcing is also being utilized. They are hoping to raise $240,000, one dollar for each mile to the moon, through Indiegogo (http://igg.me/at/SpaceIL/x/6667697). Surplus funds will go to furthering their mission to recreate the “Apollo Effect”–a boost in STEM education and career choice for the next generation, such as the United States witnessed half a century ago.

The majority of those involved in the project are volunteers and since its initial Facebook post, “Who wants to go to the moon?” and bumper stickers urging everyone to “Follow Me To The Moon,” the excitement is reverberating throughout the country. SpaceIL has a request form on their website for any school in Israel to request a free visit from a representative to present an exciting presentation for students. They have interacted with 50,000 children. They have partnered with the Ministry of Education and are using the spacecraft as a tool to get children excited about science. Jewish children in the United States will also benefit through SpaceIL’s partnership with the iCenter in Chicago to forge a greater connection between the countries. Assuming the project succeeds, it is expected everyone in the country will feel a new pride for Israel as well as a desire to participate in the STEM fields.

The founders had a chance to introduce a larger audience to the exciting project at the recent AIPAC conference through their touching tribute to Ilan Ramon and his widow Rhona. As expressed at the convention, the goal is larger than the $20 million Lunar XPrize–they aim to put an Israeli flag on the moon.

New Yorkers are expected to catch the excitement soon at the upcoming Celebrate Israel Parade on June 1. A mockup of the spacecraft is the headlining act, fitting in well with the parade’s theme of “50 reasons to celebrate Israel.” Fifty years ago, the parade began on Riverside Drive and then moved to the standard parade route along Fifth Avenue. Who knows? Maybe in another 50 years, the Celebrate Israel Parade route will be along the moon. v


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