He’s spent eight years trying to land a spacecraft on the moon, but when Yonatan Winetraub stood on the launchpad earlier this month at Florida’s Cape Canaveral, he was in shock.
“I stood right next to the rocket, and it’s pretty big,” Winetraub said in a phone interview on Wednesday, the day before the historic launch. “In the video, you don’t see how big the rocket is and how powerful it is.”
If Winetraub sounds like a kid marveling at the idea of space travel, that’s because he kind of is. He and two friends, all in their 30s, intend to make Israel the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon. Only the United States, the Soviet Union and China have done it.
Liftoff for SpaceIL was 5:45 p.m. yesterday; the Israeli craft launched into space from Florida hitched to one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets. The squat, circular, three-legged vehicle is roughly the size of a compact car: 5 feet tall, 6½ feet in diameter and weighing about 1,300 pounds, most of which is fuel.
The remarkable thing is that Winetraub and his partners, Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash, aren’t backed by billions of dollars from a superpower government. In 2011 they co-founded SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit with a budget of $100 million — a pittance in the space biz. If their mission is successful, it will be the first time any private spacecraft has landed on the moon.
San Francisco property developers and philanthropists Stephen and Nancy Grand are among the lead donors on the project.
The others include casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, Israeli-Canadian real estate billionaire Sylvan Adams, Israeli plastics magnate Sami Sagol, and American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.
Whereas Apollo 11’s 1969 trip to the moon took three days, SpaceIL’s will take about two months. That’s because it’s riding shotgun on a second rocket and cannot propel itself directly to the moon. Instead it has to use orbiting to align itself, only meeting up with the moon at the beginning of April.
About four minutes after launch, the SpaceIL craft, named Beresheet — Hebrew for Genesis — separated from the rocket. It sent a first communication to SpaceIL’s ground control in the central Israeli town of Yehud and went into orbit around the Earth. Over the course of the next 45 or so days, it will hurtle through space at a maximum speed of more than 22,000 miles per hour. Its thrusters will push the craft in progressively wider and wider orbits around the Earth, and closer to the moon’s orbit.
Then it will enter one of the riskiest steps of the mission.
Once the spacecraft gets near the moon, it must suddenly slow down enough to be pulled into the moon’s orbit. If it goes too fast, it will pass right by, speeding directly into space. Assuming this step is successful, Beresheet will travel around the moon for about a week, then will slow down again, dropping toward its landing spot on the Sea of Serenity. When the craft is about 16 feet above the surface, its engine will cut out entirely and the SpaceIL will free-fall to the moon’s surface, making a soft landing.
SpaceIL’s founders are confident that the mission will be successful. But Winetraub acknowledged that it’s fraught.
“There are many things that can go wrong and only one thing that can go right,” he said. “You really can’t test everything. The atmosphere is different on the moon, the gravity is different on the moon, so you have to have some simulations, some educated guesses about how it’s going to work.”
To even reach this point was an unlikely journey for SpaceIL, whose story is a quintessential Israeli startup tale. It was founded to compete in Google’s Lunar XPrize, a contest to see who could build the first private spacecraft to reach the moon. The co-founders submitted their application right at the deadline, Dec. 31, 2010, and went through a few failed experiments before building the right craft.
The first model was the size of a Coke bottle. When that didn’t work, the team made the craft the size of a dishwasher. Now they’re up to car-size.
“It is rocket science,” Winetraub said, explaining the difficulty. “If it doesn’t work the first time, that’s OK, but the second time around you expect it to work, so that was hard. The final design you now see is the third or fourth iteration.”
The XPrize shut down without a winner last year, but along the way SpaceIL received enough funding to keep going. It is working in partnership with the private company Israel Aerospace Industries.
The mission has become a kind of cause célèbre. Buzz Aldrin, who was part of the Apollo 11 moon landing nearly 50 years ago, tweeted his best wishes on Wednesday.
“If the #SpaceIL mission is successful this Thursday, Israel will become the fourth country to land an aircraft on the moon,” he wrote. “Good luck, Beresheet!”
— Buzz Aldrin (@TheRealBuzz) February 20, 2019
The spacecraft will raise an Israeli flag once it reaches the moon. It will carry a time capsule with the entire Bible printed in microscopic text on a coin, along with hundreds of other documents compressed onto small discs: dictionaries, encyclopedias, and Jewish and Israeli texts such as the Israeli national anthem and the traditional Jewish prayer for travelers.
The mission also will include scientific research. In partnership with NASA and the Weizmann Institute, the craft will test the moon’s magnetic field in addition to taking photos and video. After two days the craft will be shut off and the mission will be complete.
But SpaceIL doesn’t plan to end its work there. The organization also hopes to inspire Israeli kids to go into science and engineering by showing them that space exploration is achievable. Its educational programs have already reached a million children, whom SpaceIL engages by asking for help solving certain problems the craft might face, like how to stabilize with fuel sloshing around inside. The craft’s time capsule also will include drawings from Israeli kids.
SpaceIL is hoping to engage the Israeli public in the mission, as well. There is even a Spotify playlist of Israeli songs appropriate for the launch featuring “Space Shuttles” by the Israeli singer Berry Sakharof.
“It’s the first Israeli spacecraft, but hopefully not the last,” said co-founder Damari.