Tel Aviv — Is the startup nation poised to become the blast-off nation?
Past a gaggle of undergraduates and up two flights of stairs, in a shabby Tel Aviv University building, sits a team working to change the face of space travel — starting with an Israeli moon landing.
The group is designing a spacecraft that is just 3 feet tall and 300 pounds in weight and will be prepared to launch toward the lunar surface in 2015. The team hopes that the unmanned mission will set a precedent for space exploration with a tiny low-cost craft and pick up an international space prize.
The Google Lunar X Prize is offering $20 million to the first privately funded team to land a robot on the moon and have it send video, images and data back to Earth, as well as travel 500 meters over the lunar surface.
In a competition where many of the 25 entries are well-funded companies hoping that success will provide a commercial boost, the Tel Aviv-based team, SpaceIL, is the only not-for-profit.
It has a shoestring budget compared with its rivals — $30 million (all teams are expected to spend more than the prize money) — and relies on more than 100 volunteers to plan the craft and the mission alongside its staff of 13. But according to some scientists, they do seem to have a good shot.
“I think they have the know-how and most of the technology and have a very good chance of being successful and winning the competition,” said Aby Har-Even, former head of the Israel Space Agency.
SpaceIL’s entry is quintessentially Israeli — and not just because it is making the most out of limited resources. It has chutzpah, planning to “hitchhike” a tenth of the distance to the moon to save costs. It is heavily focused on promoting science education, even promising to donate the prize money to promote subjects like math and technology to young students. And it is driven by guts, not by experience; led by the young, and giving some key tasks to future scientists who are still in their teens.
“The time has come for an Israeli flag to be planted on the moon,” Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, an enthusiast for all things technological, told the Forward. “I am proud of the youngsters who created this initiative, to put the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon, and I know that they can achieve it.”