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Blue and white moon

Israeli lunar mission makes stop in Paramus

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The three founders of SpaceIL pose with a model of the craft they hope to land on the moon. From left, Kfir Damari, Yonaton Winetraub, and Yariv Bash.

In the May 1944, Itzhak Bash and 299 other Jewish engineers were removed from Auschwitz and taken to work at a Volkswagen factory that was assembling the V-1 flying bomb.

He had been a textile engineer in Hungary before the Nazis invaded and deported the Jews, but the Germans didn’t need his specific technical skills; they wanted slave laborers they could trust with careful work. The first V-1s from occupied France landed on London on June 13, 1944. As the Allies pushed into France, Mr. Bash was switched to work on the V-2, the first rocket to reach the edge of space. By the war’s end, more than 3,000 V-2 rockets had been launched.

Mr. Bash was one of the lucky hundred men who had survived from the original group of 300 engineers. Some were killed by Allied raids; others by the conditions at the work camps.

His wife and child were not so fortunate. They never made it out of Auschwitz.

After the war Mr. Bash made his way to Israel. Meanwhile, the V-2’s designer, Wernher von Braun, was brought to America to head the program that would put a man on the moon in 1969.

In Israel, Mr. Bash began a second family, and eventually made a sort of peace with Germany, even returning to the Volkswagen factory as part of a delegation from the Histradrut labor union.

Now, seven decades after he helped Nazis send rockets to kill Londoners, his grandson, Yariv, is leading an Israeli effort to put a spaceship on the moon.

Yariv Bash, 34, trained as an electrical engineer at Tel Aviv University – inspired in part by his late grandfather.

In 2007, Google announced its LunarX Prize. It was part of its effort to support “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity, thereby inspiring the formation of new industries and the revitalization of markets that are currently stuck due to existing failures or a commonly held belief that a solution is not possible.” The company pledged $20 million to the first non-governmental group that landed a spacecraft on the moon, traveled 500 meters (more than a quarter mile), and sent back high resolution video. At the time, it had been more than 30 years since the last lunar landing, made by an unmanned Soviet craft.

Three years later, as the closing date for entries approached, the younger Bash heard about the contest. He posted to Facebook: I want to enter. Who’s with me?

Before long, Yariv Bash had registered the SpaceIL domain name. He and two friends sat in a Tel Aviv pub, sketching out the first plans for what became a multimillion project to send an Israeli spacecraft to the moon.

“We were a bit overly optimistic,” he said last week. He was in Paramus, speaking at the Frisch School, part of a promotional visit to the United States that also included a float in Sunday’s Celebrate Israel parade.

Israel was the eighth country to send a satellite into orbit, with the 1988 launch of its Ofek reconnaissance craft. One of the friends, Yonatan Winetraub, is a space engineer, with experience in Israel’s space program. His connection to Israel’s space industry helped, but even more crucial to their effort was Israel’s small size and famed informality. The three began approaching Israel’s leaders. “Amazingly, they all said, yes, we’ll help you reach the moon,” Mr. Bash recounted.

“Imagine three young engineers approaching the head of NASA,” he said. But the chairman of the Israeli Space Agency, Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, agreed to meet with them.

“He’s a very tachlis guy,” said Mr. Bash, using the Hebrew word for practical. “Three minutes in to the meeting, he grabbed my laptop and started moving the slides on his own.”

He said: “Guys, it will cost more than you think, it will take more time, but I read you.”

And a month later, SpaceIL was given a 15-minute slot at Israel’s annual space conference.

“By chance and Israeli chutzpah we just got started,” Mr. Bash said.

The approach worked. The head of the Weizmann Institute later said that “he was approached by three young engineers who wanted to put Israel on the moon. How could we say no to that?”

“It’s part of the Israeli experience,” Mr. Bash said.

President Shimon Peres has joined the project, as has Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Now, SpaceIL is operating out of Tel Aviv University, which gives it the space for free, and has 20 full-time employees.

When Google launched the prize, only two nations had landed a craft on the moon. Last December, China became the third, with its Chang’e lander. SpaceIL hopes Israel will become the fourth to make a soft landing, “or the seventh to make a crash landing.

“We would rather be the fourth.”

SpaceIL is one of 18 teams now in the competition. Several are from the United States or are multinational. Other countries with national teams competing include Malaysia, Japan, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and India.

SpaceIL is incorporated as a nonprofit organization. In addition to designing, building, and launching the spacecraft, the organization has a goal of raising excitement and awareness about space and engineering among Israeli children.

Mr. Bash talks about “the Apollo effect,” by which the moon shots of the 1960s motivated a generation of scientists and engineers.

“It’s not just about winning,” he said. “We believe we should make an impact. The kid who constructs a model in cardboard, his mind is flying a spaceship to the moon. If I can impact one kid from every classroom, I’ve made something amazing for clal Yisrael,” the Jewish people.

SpaceIL’s largest single donation came from Sheldon Adelson, whose foundation announced a $16.4 million donation in April. But SpaceIL wants widespread support as well. It is hosting a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo; it is trying to raise $240,000, one dollar for every mile to the moon.

Supporters who donate $18 will be able to send a 140 character message to the moon on a special chip within the ship. People who donate more can get souvenir shirts, or, for $1,800, a chance to have a message engraved on the spaceship itself. For $100,000, they can get a seat in the SpaceIL control room on launch day.

The first space race pitted two large government bureaucracies against each other, as the Soviet Union competed against NASA. Now, while China and India are beginning their own governmental space race, in the West the focus has shifted to private and flamboyant enterprise. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic airlines, has been taking reservations for future suborbital trips through his Virgin Galactic company. Last week, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, unveiled the company’s Dragon 2 capsule, designed to ferry up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station and perhaps beyond. (Despite his Israeli sounding name, Mr. Musk is not Jewish.) And several crowd-funded efforts on IndieGoGo and Kickstarter have offered space enthusiasts the opportunity to support space flight, control their own orbital experiments, and even have photographs taken in space.

At this stage, Mr. Bash believes that his team is the furthest along. And even if it is not, “even if someone else beats us to the moon, it will probably be a private team in the States, so we will still be the fourth nation” to land gently on it.

SpaceIL has a design for the spaceship, which it has named “Sparrow.” It will weigh about 300 pounds at launch and stand a bit over three feet tall – “the size of a small dishwasher.”

Construction has begun. In December, SpaceIL signed a contract with Israel Aircraft Industries for the propulsion system. That system, and its fuel, will make up 80 percent of the satellite’s weight at launch. With the 88 pounds remaining, SpaceIL will squeeze in navigation, which can control its journey by looking at the stars and recognizing landmarks on the moon; broadcasting equipment to beam the message back to earth; and fuel to make a second 500 meter hop – because why would an Israeli mission send a rover if the ship itself could make a shortcut?

Now, the organization is focusing on buying a launch spot. There are a handful of countries and companies offering launch service.

“You can’t secure a launch on eBay,” said Mr. Bash. “You have to do a lot of email and tours and meetings all over the world, until you find the right opportunity for your spacecraft.”

No launches from Cape Canaveral are available to be booked, he said; a launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan remains a possibility.

He said he expects the launch to cost $10 million, “but it can change quite a bit.” SpaceIL’s overall budget is $36 million. And if it wins the $20 million Google contest, it will plow the proceeds back into its educational work.

SpaceIL is not buying a launch from the Israeli Space Agency; the agency’s Shavit rockets are designed for low earth orbit only. In addition, Israel is unique in launching its rockets from east to west, rather than the reverse. This is not because of Hebrew going from right left, jokes Mr. Bash, but because “our neighbors wouldn’t appreciate us launching modified ICBMs above them.”

Launching against earth’s rotation makes orbit 30 percent harder to achieve, or requires the satellites to be 30 percent smaller. “Out of that came the Israeli know-how for microsatellites,” he said.

That’s particularly important for the lunar lander, because building a bigger satellite isn’t just a matter of packing more pounds worth of payload on a rocket. A more powerful moon craft also would bring an added layer of paperwork, since it would fall under arms treaties regulating intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The direct flight from earth orbit to the lunar orbit will take three or four days. The whole voyage will be longer, though. After being launched into earth orbit, the mission will wait until the moon is in the right alignment. And once it is orbiting the moon, there will be a further delay until it is in the right position to land. Total expected time: roughly one month.

There will be simulations before the launch. For a month, the avionics, the computer, and the spacecraft will be fed data so they believe they’re flying to the moon. “It’s a real simulation. It’s almost like flying to the moon,” Mr. Bash said.

Still: “There’s nothing like going up.”

But Mr. Bash’s biggest journey may have come about a year ago, when Volkwagen invited him to talk to the company’s management in Hamburg, Germany. His second slide was a picture of his grandfather.

“I ended in an optimistic way. Look how far we’ve gone in 70 years,” he said.

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