Israeli space techies shoot for the moon

Space IL gears up for Google’s Lunar X competition; Hi-tech giant offering $30 million prize for first craft to make lunar visit

June 25, 2013 21:31
KFIR DAMARI, scientist and hi-tech guru, speaks at the downtown Jerusalem Startup Hub about Space IL

Kfir Damari 370. (photo credit: Joshua Lipson)

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 showman.

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.

“When I’m 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.”

Sunday night, 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.”

But 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 success.

“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.

“In 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 them.”

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 old.”

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