Kfir Damari, a communications engineer at the helm of Israel’s first private
space exploration company, Space IL, is equal parts hard scientist and hi-tech
An unassuming presence in jeans and sneakers, he flashes the
image of a bubble gum wrapper on a bare white wall.
At the age of 11,
Damari opened a piece of Bazooka gum, its joke prophesying that he would one day
travel to the cosmos. From that moment, he was moonstruck.
speaking about Space IL, I’m actually speaking about dreams,” he said. “Some
people dream of making a good crème brulee; we dream of flying above the earth
and landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon.”
Damari came to the downtown Jerusalem Startup Hub to make a presentation on his
lunar exploration startup, Israel’s sole entrant in Google’s Lunar X
competition, which offers a $30 million prize to whichever team’s craft can make
it to the moon first.
An eager, age-diverse audience of about three dozen
filled the space, launching spirited technical questions and political comments
as they swiveled in lunar-white eggshaped chairs.
Although Space IL is
now the toast of engineers and Israel advocates the world over, Damari explained
that just a few solar revolutions ago, the Israeli team – founded and led by
Damari, Yariv Bash, and Yonatan Winetraub – was far from the horizons of the
global space exploration community.
Their sights set on Google’s Lunar X
competition, they had nothing to present to the entrance committee but napkin
sketches and a shipload of chutzpah.
Damari said that when the team
decided to enter the competition, it was a month and a half before registration
closed, at the end of 2010.
“Other teams had been open for two years
before that. We realized that we needed to sign up, and in order to sign up, we
needed to give two things: a registration fee of $50,000, which we didn’t have
around to spare, and blueprints – some kind of technical presentation of how we
were going to do that.”
The trio shot for the stars with a classical
Israeli argument: Short on resources and pressed for space, they improvised –
focusing on human capital and ingenuity.
“We realized that in a month, we
couldn’t bring the full design for [a] spaceship – the only thing we could do
was the second best thing – which was to create a winning team.”
short of the individualistic self-congratulation of which start-up geniuses are
often accused, Damari – who was recently startled to have been asked by a
schoolchild for an autograph – stresses the collective nature of Space IL’s
“Three engineers alone cannot build a spaceship, so we went to
some amazing people for help. We went to [all these experts] at the
universities, and said, ‘Hello, nice to meet you.
We want to land the
first Israeli spacecraft on the moon.’ And instead of kicking us out and saying
we were crazy, they asked how they could help...
Within 10 days we raised
$50,000 and entered the competition the day it was due.”
Beyond the inner
core of expert advisors and sponsors – who make up the ranks of Space IL’s spare
roll of 12 fulltime employees – Damari heaps genuine praise on the corporate and
state sponsors who have pledged $23m. of Space IL’s total budget of $30m. His
highest praise, however, was reserved for the project’s committed corps of 250
volunteers, who range in age and background from President Shimon Peres, soon to
turn 90, and Amit Levine, a Tel Aviv University physics student of 16 who began
work on with Space IL two years ago.
“Volunteering at Space IL isn’t like
volunteering anywhere else, no offense to volunteers anywhere else,” Damari
said. “They don’t come for just five hours – they are devoted absolutely. This
is what they do.”
Devotion was a central theme of Damari’s talk: Since
2010, Space IL has moved from far-out dreams to hard-headed engineering at
astronomical levels of precision. Accustomed to non-technical audiences from
Israeli middle schools and last year’s AIPAC conference, he explained complex
propulsion, landing, and communications models through rich animation, humorous
asides and everyday comparisons.
Space IL’s vehicle, which Damari is at
least certain “will land on the moon within the next few years,” will be
incomprehensibly small – the size of a small washing machine, thanks to advances
in computing and propulsion efficiency.
“Remember, each smartphone has a
computer much more powerful than everything NASA had landed, and weighs less
than half a kilogram.
Everything you need to land a spaceship on the moon
is here, in your pocket.”
But even more than expert engineering, it seems
that Space IL’s greatest object of devotion is of a humanistic kind. Damari
expounded on the Apollo effect, which – in the wake of the 1969 moon landing –
launched hundreds of thousands of young Americans into science and engineering
programs. He claimed that the IDF lacks 12,000 tech candidates every year and
that the rate of engineering graduates has stagnated. Therefore, Damari sees an
Israeli triumph in space as a vehicle for educational inspiration.
the middle of 2015, people all around the world will be sitting in their houses
and in front of big screens on the street, and will be able to see the images
transmitted of the Israeli flag. At that moment, it won’t just be about Israeli
pride, but also about the science and engineering behind it. Right now, we’re
already going to schools, meeting kids – we’ve already met 33,000 kids all
around Israel, from Eilat to Shlomi. It’s amazing how much this inspires
When asked by an audience member about the future of Space IL
after a successful moon landing, Damari paused against the bright white
background of his empty screen – offering little specifics beyond a beaming hope
for the next generation.
“I am strongly considering the possibility that
today’s kids will build a spaceship that will bring ours back. We will be too