Space, the final frontier, meets the Promised Land.

On Nov. 14, more than 400 people came to Pikesville’s Chizuk Amuno Congregation to attend the Jewish National Fund’s annual “Breakfast for Israel in Maryland” event and learn about the important work that JNF is doing in the Jewish state.

But they also were there to hear about space travel, from a decidedly Israeli perspective.

The gathering’s keynote speaker was Yonatan Winetraub, a co-founder of SpaceIL, a $100 million Israeli nonprofit that attempted to land Beresheet, the first private interplanetary robotic mission, on the moon on April 11. 2019. The effort made Israel only the seventh nation to ever orbit the moon and reach the lunar surface.

Winetraub’s keynote was titled, “Small Country, Big Dream: Leading Israel into the Space Race.” He described how he and the two other founders of SpaceIL, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari — all of them in their 30s and self-admitted geeks — dreamed of going to the moon. So in 2011, they established SpaceIL as a private Israeli organization.

They subsequently raised $100 million for the project, with much of the funding provided by Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, as well as other philanthropists and Israel Aerospace Industries.

By working on Israel’s fledgling space program, Winetraub said he hopes to inspire younger generations to expand their horizons and dream big. “We want them to take science courses and to follow their dreams,” he said. “We tell kids that technology is evolving so fast that if they have a dream, technology will catch up with it.”

On April 4, Beresheet attracted the attention of the scientific and Jewish worlds by successfully completing the Lunar Orbit Insertion Maneuver, making SpaceIL the first privately-funded enterprise to ever achieve this accomplishment

On April 11, Beresheet began the landing procedure as scheduled. But during the process, a sudden malfunction caused a series of problems, resulting in an engine shutdown and a crash landing on the moon.

“We don’t like to say ‘crash landing,’ we say ‘hard landing,’” Winetraub said. “The spacecraft travelled 4½ million miles and was coming down very nicely in the last five miles. That’s when a malfunction occurred, resulting in engine shutdown during the last five miles.”

During a question-and-answer period, Winetraub was asked if a private group of investors can ever make space exploration fully safe.

“As [the late American astronaut] Alan Shepard was rocketing through outer space [in 1961], one thought kept going through his mind — ‘Every component that made this rocket was built by the lowest bidder,’” said Winetraub, who has trained with NASA. “We are in the early stages of space exploration, so there is going to be some risk. A better outcome will show up on the other side. But as humans, we must do it, we must get to the moon, because it’s there. Unfortunately, there will be some casualties.”

Winetraub was asked if SpaceIL has any future plans for space exploration. “We are considering several plans,” he said. ‘My favorite is to do lunar sample research. We want to do something inspirational for kids.”

He was also asked about how lunar explorers can ensure that the moon remains untainted and unspoiled by humanity in the future.

“That’s a great question,” said Winetraub, who is a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics at Stanford University. “This is a new era. The more spacecraft on the moon, the more of a threat. We must see how regulations develop.”

Peter Arnold is a Silver Spring-based freelance writer.

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