Growing up in central Israel, son of an attorney and a veteran Army officer, Kfir Damari always had a scientific bent.
At five he wrote his first computer program.
At eleven he designed his first computer virus – in theory; he didn’t try to infect anyone’s computer.
In the Army, serving in intelligence, he used his high-tech skills and sought to do “more sophisticated stuff.”
At 28, his goal is the moon.
Damari is one of three co-founders, along with two fellow former IDF members, of SpaceIL, a private non-for-profit company that has entered an international competition to land a robot on the moon. The Google Lunar X Prize competition is organized by the X Prize Foundation and sponsored by Google.
Besides a team from the Isle of Man, Israel’s is the smallest among some two dozen participants – most represent larger, richer countries like the United States, China and Germany.
Therefore, says Damari, who was here this week during a nationwide educational and fund-raising visit, SpaceIL (spaceIL.com) thinks small. “The smallest spacecraft ever.” Offering no specifics, he says SpaceIL’s robot will be about the size of a microwave oven and weigh “less than a human,” most of the bulk consisting of fuel.
According to competition rules, the robot must land safely on the moon, travel about 500 yards, and send pictures and data back to earth.
The spacecraft being designed by the firm will be the smallest among all the competitors, Damari says. “Israel is a small country. Our solution is to build small,” with a small budget (a private fundraising goal of $10 million) and a small timeline (SpaceIL plans to launch its craft, on another country’s commercial rocket, by the end of 2013).
SpaceIL is leveraging its participation in the competition – Damari talks of “when” Israel wins, not if – to improve Israel’s image abroad and boost young Israelis’ interest in science. He calls the firm a “philanthropic space start-up.”
Israel’s 20-year-old space program – its most famous member was astronaut Ilan Ramon, killed in the 2003 Columbia explosion – now has about a dozen civilian and communications satellites circling the earth, says Yonatan Winetraub, a SpaceIL co-founder; SpaceIL’s robot, tentatively called David, will be the country’s first to leave earth’s orbit.
“We’re going to make Israel the third country [after the U.S. and Russia] to land its flag on the moon,” Damari says.