For a time it looked like the Google Lunar XPRIZE was a failure—another pie-in-the-sky space age dream never to materialize. When it was announced in 2007, the $30-million competition to land and operate a privately funded spacecraft on the moon was slated to conclude by 2012. Getting to the moon, its organizers thought, should not take more than five years. Instead, the contest has gone through multiple rule revisions and deadline extensions as its competing teams struggled to make progress. Now, after enduring several quiet years and waning public interest, the competition is at last reheating and reentering the spotlight. Nine of the 16 competing teams are featured in Moon Shot, a new Web series produced by the filmmaker J. J. Abrams, and several of them appear on track to reach the moon by the contest’s latest deadline, December 31, 2017. But there’s one team arguably in the lead: SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization.
Like the contest itself, SpaceIL has followed a roller-coaster trajectory to the moon. Yonatan Winetraub, presently a biophysics PhD student at Stanford University, along with two friends, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari, conceived their mission in a pub in 2010, and filed their paperwork with the XPRIZE Foundation mere minutes before the entry deadline. For years they worked in relative obscurity. Then, last year, SpaceIL made headlines by becoming the first of the competing teams to purchase a verified launch contract—a giant leap toward making the organization’s lunar flight a reality. If all goes well, its 500-kilogram spacecraft—informally dubbed “Sparrow”—will hitch a ride to the moon sometime in 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket chartered through private aerospace company Spaceflight Industries. Scientific American spoke with Winetraub about SpaceIL’s plans.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What does SpaceIL have to do to win the competition?
To win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, you need to land on the moon; you need to take and transmit video and stills of the landing itself, and some selfies; and you need to travel 500 meters across the surface. The first team to do that wins $20 million, and the runner-up gets $5 million. More money would be awarded for completing secondary objectives, like finding water on the moon or traveling five kilometers instead of 500 meters.
Was it easy to book a flight to the moon?
No. It turns out that the fund-raising required to book a flight to the moon is at least as hard as rocket science. The original deadline for any team to book a flight was actually last year, just one month after we booked ours. If we or no other team had managed to book one and have the contract verified, the Google Lunar XPRIZE might already have ended in failure. Now that we have booked a flight—even though we were the last team to register, years behind our competitors—we now might be the first to launch. We’ve gone from three guys sitting in a bar—Yariv, Kfir and myself—to a fully functional organization with nearly 30 people working full-time headed by a very capable CEO, Eran Privman. That transition means a lot. It means we’re really in the race and we have a really good shot at the moon.
Is your team’s approach different from the others?
Other teams have chosen to use rovers to traverse 500 meters on the moon but we have chosen to hop because a rover requires special design features that require more mass—and more money. Apart from hopping, the other crucial decision for us was to save money by launching with other satellites. The problem is, there’s not a lot of commercial incentive yet to go to the moon, so we would be the only ones heading there from a specific launch. So we needed to find a way to rendezvous with the moon even if all the other satellites would be deployed around Earth. Our contract stipulates that SpaceX will relight the Falcon 9’s engines to give us an extra boost after it deploys the other satellites. If you think about it, using a billion dollars to build a spacecraft to go to the moon is easy. But first you need a billion dollars, and none of us have it. So our innovations are made to drive down costs, so that we can go beyond Earth for a more reasonable price.
What else will your spacecraft do up there?
Our main secondary objective is not included in the competition, and it is to take a scientific experiment with us so that we bring value beyond excitement and inspiration. We are working with the Weizmann Institute [of Science] to make a very sensitive magnetometer to put in a quiet place on the spacecraft, to map the local magnetic field around our landing site as we hop around it. These measurements would build off similar experiments from the Apollo missions, and could tell us more about the moon’s origins and composition.
You mentioned landing sites. Do you have one yet?
We have a short-list, yes, chosen based on safety and science. Safety and science are to some extent contradicting requirements. For safety, you want to land on the flattest, sunniest surface you can find, with no rocks whatsoever. For science, you want the rocks and to look in the shadowy spots—they are more interesting. And if you want to learn about the moon’s magnetic field, you want to go to places with interesting magnetic properties. You have to find a compromise between these contradictions—it’s not an either/or situation. What we know for sure is where we will not go. A few years ago NASA announced guidelines for what teams can and cannot do, and they specifically requested that teams avoid the first and last Apollo landing sites—Apollo 11 and [Apollo] 17.
What still needs to be done before your launch date?
We need to build the spacecraft. We already have some of the parts in our facilities, and for others, we’re in the process of ordering. We’re quite close to finishing the final step of the design and starting construction. The difficulty here is that everything needs to work perfectly on the first try, but we can’t fully test everything like we’d want to on Earth—the first time our orchestra will play its symphony from start to finish will be on the moon.
What worries you most about getting to the moon?
The landing will be the most dangerous part of the mission because our spacecraft will be traveling at two kilometers per second and must precisely decelerate to stop at an altitude of zero. You can’t use parachutes because on the moon there is no air. Airbags don’t work at those speeds. And you can’t control the spacecraft from back on Earth because by the time the signals move back and forth the spacecraft’s position will have already changed by kilometers. We will need to pack all the knowledge and expertise we have into the spacecraft and then just watch it as it goes out on its own and, hopefully, lands.
Another team, Moon Express, obtained a verified launch contract shortly after SpaceIL. Do you worry they will beat you to the moon?
We don’t worry about other teams. Getting to the moon is hard enough that if you can make it, kudos to you. I wish we all could just buy tickets and go, and all the competing teams are working towards that sort of goal. So I hope all of them succeed. But even if Moon Express lands before us, the fact remains that Israel has never been to the moon.
If you do win, what do you plan to do with the prize money?
We’re going to contribute that money to promoting scientific exploration and education. That’s a better way of saying we will be giving some of it away! We might fund other inspirational, ambitious projects—other grand challenges. That’s the spirit of SpaceIL, to create inspiration with focused science projects, particularly in kids. As a nation, as people of Earth, we need more of them to choose careers in science and engineering. We haven’t decided on specific missions to fund yet. Landing on the moon is hard. We are going to finish that mission before thinking about the next one.