The three young men who came to my office almost a decade ago were disappointed. They have just finished enthusiastically showing me their plan to build a small spacecraft that could land on the moon, send a picture from there, and then leap about 500 meters and send another picture.
"We will do this within 3-4 years, at a cost of $10 million," said Yariv, Kfir and Yonatan, "and we will win Google's $20 million prize for the first private (non-governmental) group to do it. We will donate the prize money to educational activities that will attract Israeli youth to study science and technology in general and space in particular. After all, only the United States, Russia and China did it before us!"
Their three faces fell when I told them that in my estimation, the spacecraft would cost at least $80 million, four times more than the prize money itself. I was reminded of similar situations in which I found myself when I was their age, when my ideas were met with serious doubt. I was lucky, however, and despite the skepticism I was always given the opportunity to prove my ideas. What do we have to lose? I thought.
According to Israeli anti-trust laws, the investment had to come mainly from private sources, so that this would not risk any public money.
"You know what," I said, "I will give you a 10-minute opportunity to present the idea at the Space Conference next week at Tel Aviv University, and we will make sure that the conference includes philanthropists who were educated in Israel and who have Zionist pride flowing through their veins."
And so it came to pass. In the audience for the presentation was philanthropist Morris Kahn, who donated several hundred thousand dollars on the spot to get the idea off the ground, Kahn ultimately bore the main burden of donations to the project, whose final cost (including the launch) came to about $100 million. He also worked to recruit key people to the management of SpaceIL (including me). The rest is history: the spacecraft is currently making its way to the moon.
The real lesson of this story is the entrepreneurial culture in Israel. No amount of skepticism can stop a group of young entrepreneurs from trying to realize an idea they believe in.
All the foundations needed to realize technological dreams - creativity, technological know-how, mobilization of talented individuals on a volunteer basis, funding, etc. - are around us in Israel; one has only to reach out and take them. This is why Israel is now considered a global center for high-tech technologies, and that is why we economy is thriving. ?
Isaac Ben Israel is a general in the IDF reserves and the chairman of the Israeli Space Agency