After the Apollo 11 mission reached the moon, the world became captivated by space travel. American students wanted to be astronauts and engineers in the same way that they had always wanted to be doctors and lawyers.
SpaceIL co-founder Yariv Bash wants to make the space industry as important to children in Israel the same way that Apollo 11 made it huge in the U.S. His team is among the 18 remaining in the Google Lunar X Prize, which challenges private teams to get a lander to the moon by the end of next year.
While most of the other competitors are interested in the commercial aspect of the competition, which could boost the nascent space industry and help drive real business opportunities, SpaceIL is solely focused on inspiring its Earth-bound fans to pursue a career in the sciences.
“We don’t have investors; we have philanthropists,” Bash said. “We realized that we should make it into something much bigger than a commercial spacecraft.”
That doesn’t mean that the company doesn’t have to face the same challenges as the other X Prize entrants. It costs a lot of money to get to the moon — more than SpaceIL or the other teams realized, Bash said — and if your business is inspiration instead of galactic deliveries or asteroid mining, it’s a good idea to do it as cheaply as possible.
The X Prize landers won’t launch on their own; they’ll launch via a rocket operated by a third party, which will heavily charge participating companies to get their lander beyond the grips of Earth’s gravity. SpaceIL’s idea was to build a moon lander that is as small and light as possible, minimizing what the launch company will charge it.
“When you buy a launch, it’s like buying a FedEx package: The bigger you are, the more it costs,” Bash said.
Part of the Lunar X Prize criteria is that once a team arrives at the moon, it has to move its lander or another piece of equipment 500 meters across the surface. Like the Penn State Lunar Lion team, SpaceIL decided to pass on bringing a rover to make the 500 meter journey. Bash said that for every pound of rover a team sends to the moon, it has to send an additional three to four pounds of lander. That’s not very efficient when you can just make your lander capable of taking off again and moving the required distance.
SpaceIL also shaved away unnecessary operating equipment. For example, when the lander approaches the moon, it will rely on its on-board camera to communicate its location instead of an expensive standalone system. With fuel, the lander will weigh roughly 300 pounds. After it has burned all that fuel and reached the moon, it will weigh just more than 100 pounds.
SpaceIL is currently negotiating its launch and plans to reach the moon by the end of 2015. But Bash has his doubts that any of the teams will meet Google’s deadline.
“We believe it will be very hard for any of the teams in the race to land on the moon by the end of 2015,” Bash said. “It takes a long time to close a launch opportunity.”
It’s generally takes around two years, he said. That will cut the deadline very close — or far too early — for many of the teams.
But Bash said SpaceIL isn’t in it for the $20 million with which the winning team will walk away. This is about inspiring a generation. And within five years, he thinks Israel will notice a big difference.