A journalist films the spacecraft during a presentation for the media on Monday. A journalist films the spacecraft during a presentation for the media on Monday. A journalist films the spacecraft during a presentation for the media on Monday. (Photo: Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli moonshot will make space history in 2019

The dishwasher-sized spacecraft will be the first-ever privately-funded lunar landing.

"We choose to go to the moon!" declared President John F. Kennedy in a speech in the fall of 1962. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Seven years later, his words became a reality when Neil Armstrong exited the Apollo 11 lunar module and hopped into history.

Nearly 50 years after those fateful first steps on the moon, another country is aiming for its shot at a vast new frontier. Israel will be launching a ship into space this February and, if all goes as planned, the small Mediterranean country will become only the fifth country to ever land on the moon – after the U.S., Russia, India and China.

Inside a space simulator in Israel, the spacecraft is now undergoing a series of final checks. Once it's prepped, it will be boxed up and shipped to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it's scheduled to liftoff on Feb. 13, weather permitting. It will hitch a ride into space aboard Space X's Falcon 9 rocket.

Once the Falcon rocket reaches 37,000 miles from earth, the unmanned Israeli ship will separate from its host rocket and embark on the remainder of the journey alone to its final lunar destination. Think of it like an Uber that drops you off more than 200,000 miles away from your destination. Traveling at 22,370 mph, the entire trip should take about two months to get from the earth to the moon.

This will only be a one-way mission, and the spacecraft will remain for the ages on the surface of the moon, an Israeli flag attached to its exterior, for new explorers to discover.

A historic first

The Economist magazine, in a special issue examining the stories people will be talking about in 2019, highlighted a new trend in interstellar travel: private space missions. Gone are the days when the only way to get into outer space was with a billion dollars and a NASA employee badge.

From Elon Musk's Space X and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, private companies have staked their claim in the new moon rush. Following in this trend, the Israeli trip marks another debut. The mission is being funded by a non-government entity, marking the first privately funded moon landing in history. Its entire budget is expected to clock in at under $100 million.

Philanthropist Morris Kahn donated nearly $30 million for the mission. “I have experienced numerous challenges in my life, but this was the greatest challenge of all," said Kahn, who ran several multi-national corporations and founded marine water parks across the globe. "It is a national accomplishment that will put us on the world’s space map.”

The mission, not surprisingly, is mixed with a sense of urgency and destiny. It began back in 2007 when the Google X Prize was first established. The Silicon Valley tech giant was offering $20 million to the first team to land a rover on the moon and send back high-definition video. Teams from all over the world signed up, hoping to take part in this literal space race. One of those groups was an upstart team from Israel called SpaceIL.

The brainchild of three Israeli entrepreneurs – Yonatan Winetraub, Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash – the group excelled in the competition, quickly separating itself from the pack by becoming one of the top three teams. (Bash played double duty during this time, also launching a company that makes drones that deliver burgers to golfers.) As the contest waged on, Google had to keep pushing back the deadline to allow more time for the teams to work. In early 2018, with no team able to meet the latest deadline, Google withdrew the prize money.

But SpaceIL was so close to finishing the project, only months away from completion. Quitting was not an option for dreamers and technophiles in a country known as the Startup Nation. They decided to keep going, and that bet paid off.

The future is now

Dozens of journalists crowded into a press event held at Israel Aerospace Industries just outside of Tel Aviv this Monday to see the fruits of their labor. The public finally got to see the finished product – a golden foiled contraption about the size of a dishwasher.

The size was no surprise to those in the room; after all, Israeli-made space equipment is known for being lightweight and energy efficient. "Israel builds lighter satellites than anywhere in the world," Damari explained at the event. Indeed, the SpaceIL ship weighs less than a ton – 1,322 pounds to be exact – which would make it the smallest spacecraft to ever land on the moon.

The SpaceIL team is drawing on knowledge and ingenuity from a wide array of local schools – including Tel Aviv University, the Technion Institute, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Ben-Gurion University. If successful, it could open entirely new avenues for space exploration.

As part of the ceremony, the team announced that they will be sending a time capsule aboard the ship consisting of three discs – each containing hundreds of digital files. Among them will be drawings by Israeli children, MP3 files of Israeli songs and photos of Israeli landscapes.

“This is a very emotional moment," said SpaceIL co-founder Winetraub as he inserted the time capsule into the ship. "We do not know how long the spacecraft and the time capsule will remain on the moon. It is very possible that future generations will find this information and want to learn more about this historic moment.”

The time capsule of three digital discs containing thousands of files was placed within the space pod.The time capsule of three digital discs containing thousands of files was placed within the space pod. (Photo: Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

To infinity, and beyond

The trip is more than just a history-making venture. It's deeply rooted in scientific research. Once it lands, it will conduct experiments on the moon's magnetic field. NASA recently installed some of its own monitoring devices onto the ship as well. Equipped with an external camera, the craft will also be able to broadcast video of what it's seeing back to mission control here on earth. "The educational activity we are doing around the mission sets the foundation for engineers who will work in the field of space and science in the next decade," explained Ofir Akunis, Israel's Minister of Science, Technology and Space.

Sylvan Adams, a philanthropist who came on board just last month, thinks the project will accomplish more beyond its original mission. “I believe that sending the first Israeli spacecraft to the moon will inspire Israeli school children to take up STEM studies and think about space exploration, and especially to believe that everything is possible," he said.

Those seeds were first planted half a century ago at the Rice University football stadium in Houston. It's there that Kennedy finished his historic speech. "But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?"

He concluded: "... Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too."

The press gets a look at the SpaceIL craft. The press gets a look at the SpaceIL craft. (Photo: Courtesy)

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Israeli moonshot will make space history in 2019
More than a decade in the making, the dishwasher-sized spacecraft from SpaceIL will be the first-ever privately-funded moon landing.