Why is a team from the tiniest country in the Middle East joining an international race to the moon?

It’s not just the promise of a Google Lunar XPRIZE of $20 million to the first team (and $5 million to the second team) that lands an unmanned spacecraft on the moon by December 31, 2017, and then moves it 500 meters across the lunar surface as it sends high-definition images and videos back to earth.

The Israelis’ participation has much to do with a cultural passion to accomplish the seemingly impossible. It also is fueled by a desire to make history, inspire Jewish pride, and encourage more young people to pursue careers that will sustain Israel’s leading position in the high-tech world.

“Only global superpowers with billion-dollar space programs — the United States, Russia, and China — have soft-landed a rover on the surface of the moon,” said SpaceIL’s CEO, Dr. Eran Privman, last October, when SpaceIL became the first Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) team to sign a verified launch contract for a privately funded mission to the moon.

On February 17, Yonatan Winetraub — one of three young Israeli engineers who founded the nonprofit organization SpaceIL in 2010 to enter the GLXP competition — will speak about the ambitious project at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

At 4 p.m. he will lead a technical seminar, “Innovation: The Way To the Moon,” for engineers, science faculty, and students at Rutgers Honors College.

At 7 p.m. the public is welcome to “Taking Israel To the Moon and Beyond,” a discussion on the mission and its design challenges, status, and educational vision. This program is to take place at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary on the Rutgers campus.

“Yonatan’s talk is an inspirational talk about the story of SpaceIL, entrepreneurship and dreaming big,” SpaceIL spokeswoman Oshrat Slama said.

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Spacecraft parts

“Yonatan is now a Ph.D. student at Stanford, so he is flying across the country to tell the Rutgers students how he established SpaceIL in a bar in Holon with two other young engineers, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari,” she continued. “They made the first sketches of the spacecraft on a napkin.”

SpaceIL grew to be a professionally managed nonprofit with 30 full-time staff members and dozens of volunteers.

The founders have said that any prize money they win will go toward promoting science and scientific education in Israel. SpaceIL has partnered with the Israeli Ministry of Education, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and others to write a middle-school curriculum on space exploration and to train Israeli physics teachers to use the SpaceIL story in their classrooms. SpaceIL education volunteers lecture about the project at schools and businesses across Israel.

After the American astronauts aboard Apollo 11 first walked on the moon in 1969, there was an outpouring of enthusiasm for science and technology studies in the United States. That phenomenon was dubbed the “Apollo effect.”

“SpaceIL’s collective vision is to create a new Israeli ‘Apollo effect’ inspiring the next generation in Israel and around the world to think differently about science, technology, engineering, and math,” said Dr. Lynne B Harrison of Verona, chair of the U.S. board of SpaceIL. (In October, Dr. Harrison, who is not only a scientist but also a philanthropist, and who sits on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and Hillel International endowed the Dr. Lynne B Harrison STEM Center at Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter school in West Orange. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)

SpaceIL also aspires to be a point of pride and connection for Jews everywhere. “SpaceIL envisions kids of all ages — from synagogue preschools through college Hillel chapters — learning about science and technology while getting connected to Israel through this exciting mission to space,” according to the organization’s website.

Details about the project have been shared with thousands of people online, via teleconference and in person. In June 2014, for example, the SpaceIL team spoke at schools in the New York area and participated in the Celebrate Israel Parade down Fifth Avenue.

08-3-L-new_spacecraft_pressMr. Winetraub’s presentations at Rutgers are by invitation of the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement.

Dr. Harrison pointed out that Rutgers has the largest Jewish student population of any university in the country, and therefore is an appropriate setting for SpaceIL’s initial college-campus presentation.

“Rutgers has achieved great success in advocating for Israel through positive programming educating the general student population about Israel’s contributions to the world,” she said.

Mr. Winetraub’s two talks are presented under the patronage of the Consulate General of Israel-New York and the New Jersey Israel Commission and co-sponsored by Rutgers Honors College and Dr. Harrison.

There is good reason to believe that SpaceIL’s vision is not merely pie in the sky. Although 33 private teams from around the world entered the competition, only 16 remain. SpaceIL is among the two leading contenders — the other is American.

Leveraging Israeli expertise in micro-satellite technologies, SpaceIL is building a small, “smart” $50 million spacecraft about the size of a dishwasher, to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 transport rocket. The prototype features an Israeli flag emblem on one leg and the Hebrew words “Am Yisrael Chai,” “The people of Israel lives” on another.

The craft’s engines and fuel tanks will account for most of its 1,102 pounds (500 kg). That’s because whereas the other GLXP teams will use a large rover to move the spacecraft the required 500 meters on the lunar surface, the Israeli spacecraft is designed to land and then “hop” 500 meters away, propelled by the fuel left in its tank.

The dramatic signing of the GLXP launch contract in October 2015 at the Jerusalem residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who was joined by XPRIZE President Bob Weiss, secured SpaceIL’s “ticket” to the moon. The launch is scheduled for the second half of 2017, pending the additional $10 million needed to complete the project. Major contributors to SpaceIL are the Adelson Family Foundation, the Kahn Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation.