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Israeli group reaches for the stars – and $30m.
By GREER FAY CASHMAN
12/09/2011
Peres on hand at unveiling of Space IL’s plan to send unmanned vehicle to the moon.
 
A group of three Israelis is taking aim at the moon.

Israel Aircraft Industries on Thursday officially launched the Space IL project, which is competing for the Google LunarX Prize aimed at generating interest among space explorers in safely landing an unmanned vehicle on the surface of the moon.

Space IL, conceived a year ago, is the brainchild of three young engineers, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub, and operates as a not-for-profit enterprise.

Aside from creating a vehicle to reach the moon, the team’s main purpose is to encourage and advance scientific education.

The end target is to make Israel a global leader in space technology.

At the event on Thursday, a mockup of the spacecraft was revealed. If the team succeeds, Israel will be the third nation to land on the moon, after the United States and Russia. Several other nations have sent vehicles which crash landed on the surface of the moon, but none have yet emulated the successes of the initial moon exploration pioneers.

President Shimon Peres was on hand to launch the project, and to inscribe a message to be sent along with the unmanned aircraft.

Peres was accompanied to the launch ceremony by Rona Ramon, the widow of astronaut Ilan Ramon. Ilan, Israel’s first astronaut, was on the illfated 2003 Columbia space ship that exploded on its return journey to earth, shortly before it was due to land.

Rona has maintained contact with both NASA – where he trained – and with the Israel Space Agency, often acting as a liaison between the two organizations.

At the ceremony, Ramon said that her husband had been Israel’s pioneer into space, and that this project is a continuation of his journey.

The project poses yet another challenge for Israel, and gives expression not only to a sense of heritage but also to a great sense of mission, and to the standards of the quality team of which Ilan Ramon was a member.

Ilan Ramon took with him to outer space a microfiche copy of the Torah, a miniature Torah Scroll rescued from the Holocaust, a barbed wire mezuza that was also a Holocaust relic, a dollar bill that had once been in the hand of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and a work of art, Moon Landscape, by Petr Ginz, a 14-year-old who was killed in Auschwitz.

Like Ilan Ramon, Peres, in sending a message to the moon, embraced Israel’s most ancient source – the Bible. Taking his inspiration from the first chapter of Genesis, Peres inscribed the verse “...and let them be lights in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth” on a piece of parchment. The text was written in Hebrew.

Peres met with the initiators of the project and with the young Israeli scientists who are working on it. From them he received a comprehensive briefing on the engineering and construction process of the spacecraft.

In his subsequent address, Peres lauded all those who are involved in putting Israel on the international space exploration map.

“Inasmuch as Israel is a leader in technology,” he said, “technology may lead Israel to even greater heights.” Technology, Peres emphasized, is the strongest factor in Israel’s economy.

IAI Chairman Dov Baharav characterized Space IL as an outstanding example of new initiatives with extraordinary challenges. The IAI as a leader in Israel’s space industry is proud to be part of the project he said, and is eager to strengthen education in space technology.

The team comprises engineers, business people and media personalities who are hooked on space technology, plus many technology-minded volunteers from many fields. The hope is that their combined knowledge, creativity and ability to think outside of the box will give Israel the edge it requires over other competitors.

Prizes totaling $30 million will be distributed to those teams whose vehicles travel at least 500 meters along the surface of the moon and transmit images and data back to earth. Israel is among 29 competing teams.
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