Why Israel Won’t Give Up On a Moon Landing

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last Thursday evening, just two days after his decisive reelection, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu strode into the command center of the Genesis lunar project, in the Tel Aviv suburb of Yehud. The country’s first moon landing was still minutes away, but Netanyahu beamed with his usual confidence.

 “Already we can say that this is another great step for humanity and a giant step for Israel,” he proclaimed. Israel, he noted, is the fourth country, after the the U.S., Russia and China to do so. “Today we can say ‘We are on the map of the moon’ and this is a fantastic accomplishment!”

Bibi spoke too soon. The craft, known as Genesis (Beresheet in Hebrew) crashed, as the entire nation watched. A subdued Netanyahu tried to put a good spin on a disappointing result.

At Netanyahu’s side stood Morris Kahn, the 89-year-old Israeli billionaire whose vision and money had made this, the first privately financed moon shot in history, possible. Two days later he was on television announcing the launch of Genesis II. He plans to raise the money via crowd sourcing.

Genesis I cost about $100 million. Kahn put up roughly 40 percent and recruited a group of Jewish donors such as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, to give the rest. The Israeli government share was around three percent. Genesis II will be cheaper, perhaps $60 million, and take about two years. “We’re not shooting for Mars,” says Professor Isaac-Ben-Ben Israel, the head of Israel’s National Space Agency and a member of Kahn’s board. “We’re going back to the moon, and a lot of what we learned and built is still applicable.”

There are critics who say that Israel’s lunar ambitions are overly grandiose, and that the country should prioritize health care, transportation and other domestic concerns. But that criticism has been muted by the fact that the space program doesn’t compete for tax dollars. Crowd-sourcing adds an egalitarian aspect to the project, although Space IL, the Israeli organization behind the project, will not be turning away big international donors interested in helping Israel join the club of lunar landers.

Genesis is more than a prestige project. It is an argument in Israel’s perpetual culture war. “This is a matter of what kind of country we want,” says Isaac Ben-Israel. who  in addition to heading Israel’s Space Agency is a retired major general and one of the country’s most influential military thinkers. “We just elected a Knesset with a large contingent of ultra-orthodox members. They have a right to be there, that’s democracy, but they are faith-based and backward-looking. I want to live in a country that is knowledge-based and forward looking.”

Netanyahu, an M.I.T. graduate, also respects knowledge and progress. But his new coalition will rest, at least at first, on the ultra-orthodox parties whose parochial schools barely teach arithmetic and basic science is often viewed as heretical. The political rabbis won’t object to the space program as long as it doesn’t launch rockets on the Sabbath or divert funds from their educational systems.

Genesis encourages a different sort of education. One of its main missions is to inspire young people to study STEM subjects. This is particularly true of female students who, according to Israeli data, tend to be most interested in science involving robotics and space exploration. They, in turn, will fill the ranks of the Israel army’s technical divisions and feed the voracious civilian high tech sector.

There are other benefits to the Genesis Program. Its research and development in aerospace spins off products (Americans of a certain age will remember that NASA’s Project Gemini gave us Tang). And there is a national security benefit as well.

Genesis (unlike many of Israel’s other earth-orbiting satellites) does not have a specific military purpose, but it has strategic value. “It’s like the U.S.-Russian space race in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” says Ben-Israel. “Rivals look at what we’ve done and wonder what else we can do. This has a deterrent effect, no question.” Just by getting to the moon—a feat only the U.S., Russian, China, Japan, India and the European Union Space Agency have accomplished—Israel has no doubt concentrated minds in Tehran.

Still, a flop is a flop. On the night of the abortive landing, President Ruby Rivlin invited about two hundred kids and parents from around the country to a watch-party at his official residence in Jerusalem.  The gathering was televised and when the announcement came that the satellite was lost, the dismay was palpable. Rivlin, an avuncular figure, told his guests that Israel will eventually get it right. That could be the national motto.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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