SpaceIL wants to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon and it might just pull it off

By David Holmes , written on April 9, 2014

Published to the News desk.

When Daniel Saat graduated from NYU last May he had no idea where he'd land. Armed with a dual Master's in Business and Public Administration, all he knew was that he wanted to do something big and ambitious.

How about landing a spacecraft on the moon on behalf of a tiny country with virtually no existing non-military space program? That's a pretty good start.

As the director of business development for Israeli's SpaceIL, Saat, who was raised in New York but now lives in Israel, is working to do just that. A non-profit educational NGO, SpaceIL was the last of thirty-three organizations to register for Google's Lunar X Prize challenge. Google will award $20 million to the first privately-funded unmanned robotic spacecraft to land safely on the moon, travel 500 meters, and send back high-definition video and images. $20 million may sound like a lot of money, but Saat says most of the teams' budgets are between $50 million and $100 million. The real incentives for investors and sponsors to throw cash at these missions is less tangible. Some corporate backers are looking to capitalize on whatever technology the teams develop along the way. Others see marketing benefits. One sponsor, a Japanese beverage company, wants to be able to say it put the first soda ever on the moon.

So how does SpaceIL, a non-profit from a tiny country, hope to compete against teams with huge amounts of corporate backing?

With a budget of only $36 million, SpaceIL has a much leaner operation than many of its competitors. Instead of sending a bulky rover weighing between 500 kilograms and a ton (which is around the same weight as a smart car), SpaceIL is developing a wheel-less spacecraft that will reuse its propulsion system to essentially "hop" across the surface of the moon. That craft will clock it in at around 140 kilograms, or about 300 pounds.

"For every pound of rover I take I need between 3 and 4 pounds of a propulsion system to carry it there," Saat says, meaning that as rovers get heavier, the amount of weight required for fuel and mobility increases exponentially. "So we looked at the program and said we're gonna do it a completely different way. We're gonna build the smallest, smartest spacecraft to ever land on the moon." In other words, if SpaceIL successfully completes its mission, it will be a milestone not just for Israel but for space exploration itself.

Of course, there's one tiny caveat: Blasting something out of our atmosphere and landing it safely 280,900 miles away is really, really, really hard.

First off, the spacecraft, which will blast off as a "secondary payload" on a larger commercial operation, will have to withstand the launch itself. "The vibration that the launch creates could melt our bodies," Saat says. Then it must survive extreme heat, extreme cold, radiation, and all the other lovely conditions of outer space. If it gets to the moon's orbit, it will be traveling at a speedy two miles per second, but there's a four second communications latency between SpaceIL's headquarters on Earth and the moon. "You can't steer the spacecraft with a joystick," Saat says. "It has to be very automated."

So now the spacecraft is on its own, working off its programming, decelerating autonomously from two miles per second to achieve a hover four meters above the surface. It then uses an "optical navigation" system to identify rocks and craters to determine a suitable landing site, at which point it cuts its engines and lands on the surface. Assuming nothing breaks on impact and that lunar dust stays out of any crucial crevices on the spacecraft, it can finally travel the 500 meters and complete the mission. Nothing to it, right?

Even if SpaceIL fails to complete its mission, it stands as a fascinating example of how to raise money for literally "moon-shot" ambitions. So far, SpaceIL has raised $22 million of its $36 million budget, and eighty percent of that has come from within Israel. Saat's sales pitch has nothing to do with corporate gimmicks or immediate returns on investment: He wants to jumpstart an engineering revolution in Israel.

"We're funded entirely by philanthropy, donors, foundations, corporate sponsors, and others who just believe in the mission. There's no economic return to them. We sell a social return. We're going to change the country."

He talks about creating an Israel's version of the "Apollo Effect," the correlation between NASA's budget growth and spikes in technical PhDs in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. "When kids in the US grew up in the 60's and 70's, they saw astronauts and scientists and engineers on TV in addition to Johnny Carson and the Beatles. It was considered cool to be an astronaut, and you saw a spike in PhDs in engineering."

Saat thinks the effect could be even greater in Israel because it's such a small country and therefore easier to mobilize. Also, there's the power of tapping the underdog mentality. For example, in 2004 Judo competitor Ariel Zeevi became only the fifth Israeli to ever win an Olympic medal. "Overnight, every kid in israel was signing up for Judo classes," Saat says.

Of course that doesn't mean that every entrepreneur who wants to raise money for bold projects should pack up and move to Israel. But SpaceIL's story does provide valuable lessons for the next Elon Musks, scrapping and fighting to raise cash for companies with slightly higher ambitions than your average photo-sharing app. Saat and his team used the dynamics of a relatively small community to their advantage, connecting powerful stakeholders in education, engineering, and business, all of whom want to see Israel improve its standing as a technological powerhouse.

SpaceIL's approach also requires a measure of humility and trust in its network, Saat says. "We'd be really excited if our engineers or our partners take the technology and approaches that we're developing and go off and build amazing companies in the future. We want that to happen. We want to see an Israeli commercial space industry happen. And we don't need to own it, and we don't need to run it. We just want the network to make it happen."

Israel has long been known as a "startup nation." If Saat and his team have their way, they could upgrade the country's status to "startup universe."