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With all the costs of SpaceIL’s mission covered by individual and corporate donors, $20 million won will mean $20 million for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in Israel. For months now, its staff, along with dozens of nontechnical volunteers, has been traveling to schools, getting children excited about the mission and about science in general.
“It’s working,” said co-founder and chief operating officer Kfir Damari, 30. “I finished one presentation, and a child asked for my autograph. Now, the fact that I can stand on a stage and say ‘I’m Kfir and I’m an engineer’ and get asked for my autograph is exactly the excitement I’m looking to create.”
From the physical surroundings it is difficult to believe that SpaceIL’s office is the hub of a space travel project. The place is so basic and low-tech that it doesn’t even have a properly functioning air conditioning unit: An old oscillating fan was brought from a closet to keep this reporter cool. But then you meet the brains.
Damari began studying computers in preschool and programming at the age of 6. He wrote his first computer virus at the age of 11. He and his two co-founders originally planned to make the spacecraft the size of a soda bottle, weighing just 11 pounds — and maintain that they still could manage this if it weren’t for the fact that you can’t buy tiny fuel tanks that are tested to a high enough standard.
“Small isn’t a problem,” he insisted. “In a small case you have a computer more powerful than Apollo,” he said, pointing to an iPhone. “Everything that you need to land a rocket on the moon is in here, even the battery.” So that it can also beam pictures, videos and data back to Earth, SpaceIL’s on-board computer will be the size of three smart phones.
For 15-year-old Amit Levin, it’s just another day at the office. A prodigy from a tiny village in the Sharon region, he is one of the key scientists locating a suitable landing site for the spacecraft — work that he undertakes between studying for his physics degree at Tel Aviv University and continuing his high school studies.
He began last year, with some other volunteers, analyzing NASA photographs of the lunar surface to look for landing spots after a SpaceIL scientist gave a recruitment talk at his university. “I was 14,” he recalled nostalgically, “and he was like a messiah to me.”
The shortlist for landing sites is getting narrower, and Levin works mostly alone, developing algorithms for further analysis of the surface.
“In school you work from an exercise book and the teacher has the answers, or the answers are in the back of the book and you’re not supposed to look,” Levin said. “This is the first time I’ve had a challenge and nobody knows the answer, which makes it so exciting.”