Recently, the Google Lunar X Prize organization announced that the Israeli team in the competition, SpaceIl, has become the first to sign a verified launch contract to send a probe to the lunar surface. If all goes well, in late 2017, a SpaceX Falcon 9 will lift off with a number of payloads, including the SpaceIl lunar lander. Israel will be the fourth country, after the United States, Russia (when it was the Soviet Union), and China to land on the moon. The development has profound implications for the number of countries that can become true space-faring nations.
The Google Lunar X Prize was started in 2007 with the goal of encouraging private groups to land probes on the lunar surface. $20 million will be awarded to the organization that accomplishes the feat first, as well as successfully returns high definition videos and images from the moon and traverses the lunar surface for 500 meters. $5 million will be awarded to the runner-up. Another $5 million will be parceled out to groups that accomplish certain milestones, such as landing a probe that survives a 14-day lunar night. Teams from around the world, including the United States, Germany, India, Japan, and Israel, are participating.
Israel actually has had its own civil space program since 1983. It has launched its own satellites with the Shavit launch vehicle. However, the Israeli space program has been hampered by a small budget, a small launch vehicle, and the fact that it has to launch satellites into a retrograde orbit (i.e. the opposite direction from which the Earth rotates) to avoid launching over neighboring countries. On the other hand, these limitations have forced Israelis to become masters at building nanosatellites that are small and light enough to launch.
Israel does not have its own native crewed space program. An Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, flew on the space shuttle Columbia and died in the skies over Texas when that orbiter broke up on reentry. Israel depends a lot on cooperative ventures with other countries for its various space projects.
If SpaceIl succeeds, it will prove that smaller countries and even private groups can have a space program that accomplishes great things if they team up with the burgeoning commercial launch industry. Most of the cost of space travel is just getting payloads to low Earth orbit and beyond. Commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have promised to lower the cost of launching into space through technological development and market competition.
Both the Israel Space Agency and SpaceIl justify their activities in the same way that larger space organizations, such as NASA, have, pointing to national prestige, technology development, economic growth, and inspiring young people to go into the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fields. SpaceIl even writes about creating an “Apollo effect” within Israel.
What may follow is open to speculation. The United Arab Emirates is already planning a robotic mission to Mars in the 2020-2021 timeframe. Will Israel follow up with more missions, either financed privately or by the Israeli Space Agency? Will other small countries follow Israel’s and the UAE’s example and send their own probes to the moon or even beyond? It could come to pass that space travel, once the sole reserve for a few large, rich countries, will become something everyone can participate in and reap the benefits from.