My Journey Helping SpaceIL’s “Apollo Moment”

My Journey Helping SpaceIL’s “Apollo Moment”

It had been four months after I had made Aliyah to Israel when I first met the informal leader of SpaceIL,  Yonatan Weintraub, at the Ilan Ramon Space Conference in Herzliya in January 2011. A mutual friend introduced me to Yonatan, as he felt that after my 30-year career in various leadership positions in the U.S. space program, I could help SpaceIL win the Google Lunar X Prize. At that time, more than 10 teams had formed to compete for the prize of up to $30M for the first team to soft land on the Moon, send back high definition video to earth, travel 500 meters on the lunar surface, and then send back more video.

One of SpaceIL’s founders, Yonatan Weintraub (on the right) discussing plans with two team engineers at the SpaceIL offices at Tel Aviv University in June 2013

Excited, Yonatan led me over to what appeared to be a full-scale model of the lander that came to be known as Beresheet. In my time at Boeing, I had led several small lunar lander concept studies for NASA and I was struck by how small SpaceIL’s lander was. I knew that a lunar lander had to be a “flying gas tank with an engine” in order to generate enough thrust to slow down for a safe landing. The lander would need to carry a lot of gas because the Moon lacks an atmosphere that would enable a parachute to slow a lander’s descent, as happens with Mars landers.

Yonatan was starry-eyed as he gave me an overview of the lander. Seeing that he had a sense of humor, I asked, with a smile, “what are you using for fuel, unobtanium?”. He indicated that fuel selection hadn’t been made yet, but that SpaceIL’s lander would be the smallest lunar lander ever. He then went on to explain that along with his two partners Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash, his goal was to inspire Israeli schoolchildren to want to study math, science and engineering by creating Israel’s “Apollo moment.” I asked Yonatan about his cost estimate for the mission, and he replied “$24 million.” “That’s going to be a real challenge, and I wish you the best of luck,” I said, and I shook his hand as I left. I thought, “what a visionary idea – that was going to take much more than the usual amount of chutzpah to pull off in the start-up nation.”

A year later, we met again at the Ramon Conference, and the lander had grown in size by a factor of four. “What do you think of our most recent design?” Yonatan asked. “You’re getting warmer now,” I replied, and then accepted Yonatan’s offer to consult for SpaceIL to help make the mission a reality.  Given the constraints placed on me by U.S. export control laws, I did my best to help SpaceIL (U.S. export control laws constrain sharing important technical information about several key technologies involved in a lander system, especially navigation guidance and control, without a securing an export control license from the U.S. Government.)

SpaceIL team enjoying a night out in Tel Aviv, August 2013

It was quite challenging, as it was highly motivated — but mostly volunteer — team. I was involved for three years, trying to help them reach a first and crucial early schedule milestone, known as Preliminary Design Review (PDR), when the project has to demonstrate that a feasible design exists to an independent review committee. Ultimately, I departed just as Israel’s indigenous space experts from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) started to get involved in 2014. About a year later, I moved back to the U.S.

Three years later, with bated breath, I watched from my home in Boulder, CO with excitement as Beresheet was launched in late 2018 on its journey to the Moon, at a reported cost of $100M. And like most Israelis, I was glued to the coverage as Beresheet began its descent to the lunar surface. I knew that despite the fact that SpaceIL had engaged with a professional team from IAI, Beresheet’s landing would be risky, as the design was most likely “single-string,” i.e., few redundancies and backups, should any components fail. For cost-constrained missions, teams are usually driven to single-string designs.

Since I was still in touch with several of the engineers, during the landing, we were messaging back and forth in real time. When I saw the failure of the Inertial Measurement Unit, the tiny circuit that tells you if something is moving and if so, how much (and which we all have on our phones to count steps as we walk), I knew it would crash. This is because if the IMU fails, the lander computer sees zero motion, concludes that if there’s no motion, the lander must be on the ground, and thus orders the engines to shut down. By the time they managed to reboot the lander, it had sped up due to lunar gravity, and there wasn’t enough to slow it down enough for a safe landing. Crash.

But, like the Israeli national anthem proclaims, there is always hope. Indeed, in the 1960s, all of NASA’s early lunar robotic missions failed because of issues like this. You learn from failures. And despite this disappointing result, Yonatan, Kfir, Yariv and the rest of the SpaceIL team captured the imagination of the entire world with the daring Beresheet mission. Israel became only the fourth nation to orbit the Moon. In that sense, Beresheet was successful. Recent news reports indicate that the team will get to try again, as funding has been secured for Beresheet 2. Hopefully IAI and the SpaceIL team will learn from their first try, and we’ll all witness Beresheet 2’s successful lunar landing within the next few years,

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Michael Kaplan is a rocket science business executive and a congregant at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO).


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