Israel’s Moon Team Are Stars in the Classroom


It was a scientific flop but an out-of-this-world hasbara hit.

The founders of the Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL may not have succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the moon earlier this year, but they are convinced their privately funded venture has succeeded in captivating the imaginations of young people around the world.

“We had volunteers go to classrooms to tell kids about our story,” explained Kfir Damari, who along with fellow engineers Yehonatan Weintraub and Yariv Bash founded SpaceIL eight years ago. “When talking to kids in the States, the story connects them not just to science and technology but also to Israel. We talk to them about things they can relate to and get them more involved in Israel and in Israel’s story.”

Damari was here this week to accept a $1 million award for space exploration.

The XPRIZE Foundation will present SpaceIL with its Moonshot Award at its annual Visioneering Summit, an award XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari called “a testament to the team’s passion and persistence.”

SpaceIL was organized in 2011 in answer to a challenge from Google that would have awarded $30 million to the first competitor to build, launch and land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. When the competition ended in 2018 with no winner, the Moonshot Award, which was inspired by SpaceIL, was created to recognize teams demonstrating “moonshot” technology outside of the timeframe set by the Google competition.

“It’s a great honor,” Damari told The Jewish Week, adding that the $1 million would go towards SpaceIL’s next space mission and its continued educational mission.

Damari said he and his fellow engineers spoke to as many as 1 million kids in Israel and New York over the past eight years, including those they spoke to during a visit five years ago to participate in the Celebrate Israel Parade.

“Our story is something they can understand, and it inspires them to study science and technology. It shows them that it can be exciting and cool. And we also tell them to dream big and to follow their dreams,” he said.

The schools they visited here included both public schools and Jewish day schools. Damari said SpaceIL is now working with the iCenter in Chicago, which, according to its website, “advances excellence in Israel education” in collaboration with hundreds of partner institutions.

Unlike the last mission, which cost $100 million and ended with the Beresheet lunar lander crash landing on the moon’s surface in April, the next mission will cost $80 million “because we have more expertise and knowledge and can reduce the cost.”

Damari said that the scope of that mission has not been decided, but it could include deploying satellites around the moon or another attempted lunar landing. “We don’t want to repeat the same mission. If we go to the moon, it will not be just to land but to make a big scientific impact,” he said.

And their educational mission will always be part of their scientific one.

“There will be many, many more spacecrafts. The children we are meeting today will build them.”