IT’S 2010, three young entrepreneurs – Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub − meet at a bar in Holon and decide to enter a Google Prize competition to put a robot on the moon. It must be able to walk 500 meters and send back high-definition photos. They have just one month to raise the entry fee ‒ $50,000 ‒ and submit a set of complex drawings.
Don Quixote? An impossible dream? Today, SpaceIL, the not-for-profit organization they built, employs 40 workers and has 200 unpaid volunteers. It has a contract to launch its robot into space next year ‒ one of only two teams to have such a contract verified by XPrize so far.
The vision of SpaceIL is to use the contest to inspire more young Israelis to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the face of a worrisome steep decline in those interested in these subjects.
SpaceIL is well funded, having raised some $40 million, with sizable grants from the Miriam and Sheldon Adelson Foundation and from Morris Kahn, founder of the global giant Amdocs.
My Skype interview with Winetraub, who at the time was in Silicon Valley, evoked thoughts of the legendary “we choose to go to the moon” speech by US president John Kennedy on September 12, 1962. That speech, only 2,200 words, before 35,000 people in a Houston football stadium, changed the world and inspired a generation of young Americans to study science. Here are some parts of it: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept…” SpaceIL co-founder Damari began programming his computer at age six. He served in the famed IDF Military Intelligence unit 8-200; earned two degrees in systems engineering from Ben-Gurion University and led several R&D teams. He told StartupCamel, a start-up website, that he, Bash and Winetraub approached experts at the Israel Space Agency, Israel Aerospace Industries and the Weizmann Institute of Science, and told them about wanting to build an Israeli robot the size of a Coke bottle to land on the moon.
He recalls to The Jerusalem Report, “They looked at us, smiled, and instead of saying, you’re crazy, they said, that’s amazing, how can we help?!” In 10 days, they raised the entry fee, and just before the deadline, assembled a “good enough” set of blueprints to qualify.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own.
Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man…” Kennedy told the Houston audience.
“The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home, as well as the school,” he continued.
“We want to promote STEM studies in Israeli schools,” Damari asserts. “We are building the first Israeli moon robot. The kids, they will build the next one.”
Former Intel Israel president Mooly Eden told Haaretz columnist Meirav Arlosoroff that the number of high school students taking five units of math has declined from 13,000 in 2007 to around 9,000 today, a 30 percent drop.
“There is already a shortage of thousands of workers in Israeli high-tech,” he said.
“What will happen when we come to recruit the next generation in which just 9,000 students study five units of math?” SpaceIL has several senior managers whose job is to encourage STEM studies, led by Dr. Ayelet Weizman, VP of Education.
I recalled how the US moon program got public attention with clever ideas, like astronaut Alan Shepard’s famous one-handed golf swing on the moon. (Try swinging a five-iron in a space suit!) Among the youth-oriented SpaceIL “marketing” ideas: A mock-up of the little robot inviting people at Ben-Gurion Airport to take a “selfie” in front of it and send it to SpaceIL, which will then upload it onto the robot and take it to the moon (digital images don’t weigh that much).
“To be sure, all this costs us a good deal of money. The budget now stands at $5.4 billion a year, a staggering sum, though less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. …I realize this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us. …I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job,” Kennedy concluded.
To this day, experts argue over whether the billions spent on the US moon shot were well spent. The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) peaked in 1966 at $44b. (in 2015 dollars), or 4.4 percent of the federal budget.
Today, NASA’s budget is only $19b., or 0.5 percent of federal spending.
The US, a rich country, has convinced itself that it is, in fact, poor and that slashing budget deficits is more important than visionary projects that benefit humanity – another wrongheaded idea my fellow economists have sold the world. This has created a vacuum, filled in part by XPrize.
The XPrize Foundation, founded in 1995, has among its trustees Elon Musk (Tesla), Larry Page (Google), and filmmaker James Cameron. XPrize designs and manages public competitions “to encourage technological development that could benefit mankind.”
The inspiration originally came almost 90 years ago from the $25,000 prize offered by French tycoon Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh, an underdog, won the prize in his Spirit of St.
Louis single-engined Ryan aircraft. Nine teams spent $400,000 on the contest.
The direct result was a 300 percent increase in US applications for pilot licenses and 35 times more airline passengers within three years. One American in four personally viewed the Spirit of St. Louis within a year of Lindbergh’s flight. America’s appetite for flight caught fire.
So far, there have been six XPrize competition awards, with seven active competitions in the areas of energy and environment, life sciences, exploration, learning, and global development. A key goal of XPrize competitions is leverage – the total amount invested in the contest exceeds by 10 times or more the prize money offered, and can yield “100 times follow-on investments and social benefits.”
On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. “That’s one small step for a man,” he said memorably, “one giant step for mankind.”
In 2017, a Falcon 9 rocket will carry SpaceIL’s robot into space and launch it to the moon. SpaceIL is one of only two competing teams out of 16 to have signed a launch contract. SpaceIL is competing with much bigger, better-funded teams from the US, UK, Germany and India.
Winetraub told me that choosing members of the team was crucial. “Basically, we did tryouts,” he explains to The Report. He gave one candidate a difficult design problem.
The individual worked through the night and came up with a solution. He got the job.
The task has proved very difficult. “If we knew in advance how hard it was,” Winetraub says, “we might not have done it.”
Recently, SpaceIL took delivery of the crucial camera, made of titanium and hard glass, which has to withstand the moon’s temperature variations. During 13½ days of daylight, the temperature can reach 253 degrees Fahrenheit (123 degrees Celsius), well above boiling point. During the 13½ days of darkness, the temperature can dip SpaceIL aims to inspire more young Israelis to study science, technology, engineering and mathto minus 243 degrees F (minus 153 degrees C). In space, radiation can scramble computer memories and ruin the whole mission.
“The great British explorer George Mallory was asked why did he want to climb [Mt. Everest]… He said, because it is there.
Space is there… and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.” Contrast Kennedy’s stirring words with the tweets of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (“I don’t wear a ‘rug,’ it’s mine. And I promise not to talk about your massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.”) According to the fact-checking website PolitiFact, Trump speaks falsehoods 88 percent of the time.
Compare Kennedy’s visionary words with what the late former Mossad chief Meir Dagan said, before his death, about Israel’s leaders, “Enemies do not scare me; I worry about our leadership… there is a lack of vision, a lack of direction.”
Precisely what is the vision that our political leaders, center, left and right, have for the people they lead and represent? I have no clue. Do you? Some readers may recall the stirring opening words of the TV series “Star Trek, Voyage of the Enterprise”: “Space – the final frontier… Its continuing mission…To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
To go where no one has gone before is the unspoken mantra of all entrepreneurs, including those who lead SpaceIL. When they succeed, they inspire others to follow them, and together they change the world.
What will SpaceIL do with the $20 million if they win? They plan to invest the money in new, exciting and visionary projects – perhaps a probe to Mars.
Next year, when the little Israeli robot scrambles along the bumpy surface of the moon and shows us what it sees, I hope more young Israelis will be inspired to study math and science, instead of law and business, their imaginations ignited by SpaceIL and, indirectly, by the words of a lamented dead president spoken two generations ago. ■ The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com