Exclusive: An interview with the co-founder of Israel's historic moon mission
Just days before liftoff, Yonatan Winetraub reveals what sparked the idea, the planned lunar experiments and what surprising gifts are onboard.
Like many good ideas, it was hatched after an evening of drinking.
Three young Israelis – Yonatan Winetraub, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari – were at the only bar in Holon, a small town just south of Tel Aviv. They made for an intriguing ensemble: a space engineer, a cyber security expert and a drone maker.
As the night wore on, they came up with an audacious plan to build a spacecraft that could land on the moon. "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."
Nearly a decade later, their alcohol-infused idea is about to make history. Their spacecraft will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida next week. If all goes as planned, the trio's ship carrying the flag of their native country will make Israel only the fourth country to ever successfully land on the moon – after the U.S, Russia and China. Moreover, it will mark the first-ever privately funded trip (i.e. not paid for by a government) to land on the lunar surface.
"It's going to be the conclusion of 8 1/2 years of really hard work," Winetraub said. "When we started it, we had no idea if it was actually going to succeed." To paraphrase the old Chinese proverb: The journey of thousands of miles begins with one step. Or a beer.
Their lunar aspirations came at a propitious time. For years, NASA has been moving away from moon missions, opting instead for routine trips to the International Space Station as well as hyping a glitzier journey to Mars. Billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have stepped in to help fill the void. As did Google.
Back in 2007, the Silicon Valley tech giant established the Google X Prize. It offered $20 million to the first team to land a rover on the moon and send back high-definition video. Groups from all over the world signed up, hoping to take part in this modern-day space race.
The three Israelis – who called their team SpaceIL – excelled in the competition, quickly separating themselves from the pack by becoming one of the top three teams. (Bash played double duty during this time, also launching a company that builds 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. They decided to keep going, and that bet paid off. In total, thanks to around $100 million in private donations, they pulled off the unthinkable.
The ship was completed in late 2018. A dedication ceremony in December christened the spacecraft the Beresheet, Hebrew for "Genesis." In January, it was shipped from Israel to the United States, where it has taken up residence at Cape Canaveral to undergo final tests before the launch.
It's no surprise that the ship, which is about the size of a smart car, will be the smallest spacecraft ever designed for a lunar landing. Since the launch of Israel's space program during the 1980s, the Mediterranean country has been forced to innovate. Most countries launch rockets eastward, in conjunction with the Earth's rotation. "The Earth's rotation has some velocity to it and that can give you an extra push to go to space," Winetraub explained.
But due to geographic limitations, Israel launches its spacecrafts westward, toward the Mediterranean Sea. "Not only don't we get the extra push from the Earth's velocity, but we get the push in the opposite direction." To counteract this takes more fuel and more efficiency. Israel has become so successful at making lightweight space equipment and satellites that other countries – like the U.S., Germany and France – have entered into cooperating agreements with Israeli space companies.
Another cost-efficiency method is not flying to space on your own. Instead, SpaceIL will be hitching a ride aboard a SpaceX rocket. Think of it like an Uber carpool ride into space. "It's less of a piggyback, and more like a ride-share," Winetraub told us. "There are passengers in the front seat and passengers in the back seat all going up to space. Because we're getting off last, other payloads get dropped off first. So it takes a while." A trip to the moon would normally only take days. But because SpaceIL will be the last passenger to be dropped off, it will take about 2 1/2 months. Winetraub predicted it would be around late April before their ship lands on the moon.
Winetraub will be in Florida next week to watch the launch firsthand, while others from SpaceIL will be stationed at a ground control center in Israel, where they will begin receiving signals from the Beresheet. "In a sense, it's like the birth of a spacecraft. There's a lot of work to be done."
Despite all their rigorous pre-launch testing, there's only so much they can do to prepare. The ship has never been exposed to the actual rigors of interplanetary space travel, so anything is possible. "It's a complicated engineering process with so many parts," Winetraub said. "We have the best engineers in Israel working on this. We're hoping everything goes smoothly, but you actually don't know."
The trip is more than just a history-making venture and will embark on some 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.
This will be a one-way trip, as the spacecraft will remain on the moon for future explorers to discover. SpaceIL has placed a time capsule aboard the ship consisting of three discs – each containing hundreds of digital files. Among them are drawings by Israeli children, MP3 files of Israeli songs and photos of Israeli landscapes. "It is very possible that future generations will find this information and want to learn more about this historic moment," Winetraub mused.
SpaceIL is also hoping their lunar landing becomes an educational calling card, something akin to JFK's inspirational "We choose to go to the moon" speech. "Kids today in Israel and also in the U.S., they're not as interested in science and engineering because it's harder. It's much easier to watch reality TV," said Winetraub, who himself admitted to watching "The Real Housewives" in his spare time. "But especially here in the Startup Nation, we need scientists and engineers. So we wanted to shift the attention towards that direction."
He hopes this message resonates with the next generation. "We live in an era when these kids are going to be able to make their own rocket ships, or solve global warming, or clean up the oceans or whatever it is that they want to do. The technology is going to catch up with their dreams," he said. Through public lectures and other activities, SpaceIL has already reached more than a million kids. They've also created an online course for students about space travel, and a children's book called "The Little Spacecraft" will be published. "This is something we're very proud of," Winetraub told us. "When you see the spark in the kids and you see how excited they are, it affects you as well. It kind of fills you up to see the sparks in their eyes."
As if shepherding a space journey wasn't enough, it's only one of the big-ticket missions in Winetraub's life. The countless hours of work on the SpaceIL project has put the 32-year old Tel Aviv native a tad behind in his schoolwork. He's currently a Ph.D. student at Stanford, researching ways to detect cancer at a much earlier stage. "The sooner you detect it the more likely you are to be cured from it," he said.
He sees parallels between the two paths of his life's work, pointing out that both cancer research and space travel have seen incredible progress in the past decade. When asked which field he considers harder to crack, he didn't have to think long. "As much as a spaceship is complicated machinery, the human body is much more complicated and well engineered."
He also said he hopes to himself travel to space one day. But, for now, that trip is on the back burner as he makes final preparations for the Beresheet's launch. Before hanging up, he left us with this plea: "Please cross your fingers because this is a hard mission and we need all the help that we can get."
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Related Topics: Space