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Over the Moon

Maayan David

Two years ago, three young Israeli techies were sitting around a late-night café table brainstorming sketches of spaceships on napkins. A week later, they found themselves at the beginning of a story involving hundreds of people, tens of millions of dollars, and a chance to plant an Israeli flag on the Moon.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

moon Engineer Yariv Bash, who managed technology and innovation teams for the prime minister’s office, was looking for some project that would inspire today’s youths when a friend suggested the Google Lunar X Prize competition, where private companies are racing to get a robot onto the Moon by 2015. Bash’s first reaction of “You’re nuts,” soon became “Why not?” as he found some enthusiastic partners after putting out the word that he was interested in assembling a team to take part in the Google competition.

Kfir Damari, a college lecturer in communications systems, IDF technology officer, and computer whiz, was deliberating between various ideas for start-ups when he got a message that Yariv was thinking about the Google X Prize, and together with another friend, Yonatan Winetraub — an electrical engineer, satellite design expert, and graduate of NASA’s international school of space studies — the three met for a late-night brainstorming session. But Google had opened the competition two years earlier, and the final registration deadline — December 31, 2010 — was just ten days away. Furthermore, a registration fee of $50,000 and the submission of an initial design/business plan was a preliminary requirement in order to ensure that not just any group of space-loving youths could declare their candidacy. Undeterred, Yariv found a loophole that enabled them to register a domain name, send $1,000 with a letter of intent, and still squeeze themselves into the competition.

“When we sat and discussed it,” Kfir Damari relates, “we recognized that each of us has a cell phone which, from a technological standpoint, is more complex than the spaceships that NASA sent to the Moon 40 years ago. The computer chip in each of these phones is more powerful than all the computing power that they had at the time. If NASA could do it in 1969, we realized we could, too.

“From that first night, our plan was to create a tiny spaceship, the size of a Coke bottle. Every kilo sent to the Moon requires four kilos of fuel, so we wanted to work on a very small model. Our initial design was way off, but it got us started.”

The conditions for entering the Google Lunar X Prize contest were simple and clear. Any private, nongovernmental entity was permitted to participate, and at least 90 percent of the funding for each team had to come from private sources. A total of $30 million in prizes are available to the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon by 2015, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video images and data back to Earth. Additional bonus prizes will be given for accomplishments such as locating evidence of the existence of water on the Moon or successfully moving at least five kilometers from the point of landing.

With time running out, the team met with various entities, such as the Israel Space Agency and the Weizmann Institute. “We came and said to them, ‘We want to land a spaceship the size of a Coca-Cola bottle on the Moon,’ ” Kfir recalls. “We thought they would throw us out, but instead they exclaimed, ‘Wonderful! We’ll help you!’ ”

With ten days remaining until the competition was closed, those entities helped them raise the necessary first $50,000 from private sponsors. The contest closed at the end of 2010 with 33 teams; today 23 teams are still in the race, and the Israeli team — called SpaceIL — is considered a front-runner.

 

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