Israel's historic moon landing this month inspired by Einstein
The scientists behind the mission reveal why the world-famous physicist is their muse.
Albert Einstein had a special kinship with Israel. He traveled there and even tried to convince one of his colleagues to move there. He was one of the founders of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and bequeathed his archives to the school. They are currently building an Einstein museum on their campus.
So it should come as no surprise that a team of Israeli scientists inspired by Einstein has worked on a mission to become only the fourth country to land on the moon – after Russia, the United States and China. The upstart team at SpaceIL launched their ship – dubbed Beresheet, Hebrew for Genesis – in late February and, if all goes as planned, it's expected to make a lunar landing on Thursday, April 11.
Yonatan Winetraub, a 32-year old Tel Aviv native working on his Ph.D. at Stanford, hatched the audacious idea for the ship while hanging out with two of his buddies, late one night at a bar. "As the alcohol level in our blood rose, we got more and more determined to do this," Winetraub recalled during a recent interview with From The Grapevine. "And it never faded away." (Einstein himself has some bizarre connections to the beer industry.)
The three founders of the Israeli mission (from left to right) Yonatan Winetraub, Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash came up with the idea after a long night of drinking at a bar outside Tel Aviv. (Photo: Courtesy SpaceIL)
Winetraub and his friends looked to Einstein as their muse. When the world-famous physicist first spoke about his theory of relativity, he was brushed off by many in the scientific community. (A letter where he tries to explain the theory to a fellow scientist is going up for auction next week.) Likewise, the SpaceIL team was navigating new territory by attempting to do something nobody else had done before – become the first privately funded ship to land on the moon. All previous spacecrafts were paid for by their respective governments.
To accomplish this, the three Israeli entrepreneurs had to develop a way to create a ship on a shoestring budget: The lightweight Beresheet is about the size of a smart car and will be the smallest spacecraft to ever make a lunar landing. It cut costs further by hitching a ride into outer space on an existing SpaceX rocket. Instead of taking a direct route, which would require more onboard tools, it has been slowly floating toward the moon for the past several weeks using very little power.
The scrappy scientists persevered, like Einstein, armed with an underdog ethos. But perhaps the greatest lesson they learned from Einstein was his ability to showcase his research. "He wasn't just a physicist. He was also doing a lot of outreach," Winetraub told us. "He was all about giving the story of what his complicated physics was to the public. And I think, to some extent, it's the same thing we're trying to do here – on a smaller scale obviously. This is not general relativity." He paused, before adding: "It's all relative."
Winetraub continued: "He was an excellent physicist and an excellent communicator. We're trying to do some of that ourselves. We have an excellent team. And it's a really complicated engineering problem, but we want to be able to communicate that so that kids would one day be able to build their own spaceship."
It's the impact his moon mission is making on the next generation that is having the biggest effect on Winetraub. "The thing that touched me the most was that I was waiting for a friend just outside a coffee shop in Israel. And there were some kids that were playing around. One of them asked me: Am I one of the people from SpaceIL? The kids recognized me and they wanted to take pictures."
Einstein is often considered one of the first modern-day celebrities, with paparazzi tracking his every move. "The fact that the engineers are now, to some extent, becoming celebrities is quite remarkable," Winetraub said. "Kids want to be space engineers when they grow up, and that's really touching. Because we did this mission to inspire kids. I feel that this is one of the most beautiful things of this mission."
Last month, there were parades in Israel where kids were dressed up as astronauts and strolled down the street alongside a replica of the Beresheet. "A year ago, everyone was dressed up as Wonder Woman," Winetraub said with a laugh. "So it's quite a contrast."
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