SpaceIL co-founder: ‘We landed in too many pieces, but we did land’

3 Jul 2019561 Views

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SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub saw the firm’s craft smash on the lunar surface, but will it make a second attempt?

Last April, an Israeli non-profit called SpaceIL attempted to become the first privately funded organisation to land a spacecraft on the moon. The $100m mission – funded by Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, other philanthropists and the Israel Space Agency – had set off in February aboard a SpaceX rocket with the intention of landing on the moon, taking some photographs and conducting some science experiments.

Called Beresheet – meaning ‘in the beginning’ in Hebrew – the lander grew out of the Google Lunar X Prize competition that tasked private developers to create a craft that could travel to the moon, land on it, and then send images and data back to Earth.

While the deadline for the $30m prize ended towards the beginning of last year, SpaceIL was determined to proceed anyway as part of its overall mission of promoting science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to kids in its native Israel and elsewhere across the world.

As we now know, Beresheet did not safely touch down on the lunar surface as communication was lost with the craft just 150 metres away from touchdown. Immediately after, SpaceIL wouldn’t acknowledge it as a failure, instead calling its effort a major achievement.

‘Landing on the moon is hard’

This sentiment was expressed pretty optimistically by SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub, who previously worked as a satellite system engineer for Israel Aerospace Industries. I spoke to Winetraub at the recent Innovfest Unbound conference held in Singapore.

“We did say that we landed in too many pieces, but we did land,” he quipped. “The main lesson is, landing on the moon is hard. Engineering is hard and it doesn’t always work the first time around.”

The company most recently made headlines when it surprisingly revealed it won’t be going back to the moon for its next attempt, as Beresheet’s journey was “already received as a successful, record-breaking journey”. The suggestion is that it might look to Mars or even further for its next effort, whenever that may be.

Winetraub was less hesitant to rule out the possibility of a lunar return but said SpaceIL will need to do some “soul-searching” before it makes a decision.

“We want to do another innovative, inspiring mission. It’s unclear if doing the same mission again is going to have the same effect.

“We’re doing some soul-searching to figure out what will be [the next] mission. [Will] we want to do a lander on the moon but with a scientific outcome for it, or will we want to do another planet? It’s very hard to know at this point,” he said.

Potentially going private?

Speaking of the aftermath of the landing attempt, Winetraub said he and the rest of the SpaceIL crew were touched by the responses received from followers of the project.

“The amount of letters, Facebook posts and tweets that we got from kids was absolutely amazing,” he said.

“There was a girl saving up money for a bike and she went to us and said she’d rather see an outer spaceship and wanted to donate a couple of hundred dollars. That was really touching and a sign we got the attention of those kids.”

The company finds itself in a somewhat unique position in the space sector as neither a governmental agency nor a private company, but a non-profit relying entirely on funding through donations.

The last mission, which cost approximately $100m, was largely donated by Kahn. For the next mission, SpaceIL will need to seek new funding in order to achieve its next ‘moonshot’.

When asked whether the Israeli outfit could potentially follow the SpaceX route and become a private company, Winetraub didn’t want to rule it out.

“Never say never. I think that currently we’re set up as a non-profit, but we might want to revise it at some point. [Being a non-profit] worked for the first mission, so we would want to try it for the next one,” he said.

Disclosure: The journalist’s trip to Singapore was provided by the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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