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The South African who helped Israel go to the moon

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“Ten, nine, eight…” Morris Kahn was transfixed by a live-feed broadcast from Cape Canaveral as the Beresheet – the Israel spacecraft – lifted off en route to the moon in the early hours of 21 February. He is the South African behind the Israeli venture to the moon.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Feb 28, 2019

The journey to the moon is the culmination of an extraordinary dream for SpaceIL president and co-founder Kahn, who has devoted eight years to a project which will make Israel the fourth country in the world to make this journey. Others that have landed on the moon are Russia, the United States, and China.

“After much energy, much thought, much money, and a lot of anxiety, what we’ve been planning for years has finally happened,” says Kahn. “Whether they were in Israel, Canada, America, South Africa or elsewhere, people watched with bated breath as the launch unfolded. The world press is full of it, and Israel has ignited interest across the globe.”

Kahn watch the launch with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, project donors, and other officials from Israel Aerospace Industries in Lod. This South African-born philanthropist and entrepreneur, both a funder and overseer of the project, felt great pride as a project which had begun as a mere idea rose into the sky, and made memories that would last for years to come.

From the moment he heard about the project, Kahn was hooked. In 2011, three recently-qualified Israeli engineers applied to enter the Google Lunar XPRIZE. This was a competition that offered $20 million (R277 million) to any privately-funded team to be the first to land a spacecraft on the moon, travel 500m, and transmit images back to earth.

When the trio announced their submission at a lecture at Tel Aviv University, Kahn, who was in attendance, loved the idea.

“I went up to them, and asked if they had any money to fund it,” he recounts. “They said that they had some, but it wasn’t much. I offered them $100 000 (R1,38 million), no questions asked, and told them to go for it.”

Kahn’s interest was not merely entrepreneurial, but driven by his personal involvement in the Sea Air Space Symposium. This is an annual event attended by eminent figures in government, industry, and academia dedicated to advancing technology and development in all three areas. Kahn brought knowledge to the project that would enhance and accelerate development.

Although the team had the expertise of the Israeli aircraft industry, it soon became clear that a core of only three engineers was simply not enough. Kahn became actively involved in enhancing the team, setting out to find the best people possible.

“The task was incredibly complex,” he says. “It was apparent that we’d need more than three engineers. With my background in the symposium, I involved myself in solving problems as we progressed.”

It also transpired that the Israeli team had grossly underestimated the cost of the project. After initially setting the cost at $8 million (R110 million), they realised that the project would require $100 million (R1,38 billion), an issue which Kahn puts down to Israel’s lack of experience in space projects.

“Israel didn’t have the expertise necessary to plan a launch of such complexity. The engineers had no concept of the real cost involved in such a project, particularly because they envisioned a small, light craft.”

Kahn also felt it necessary to set a definitive launch date, as this would guarantee that the project had the necessary driving force. “We needed a target,” he says. “You can keep a project going endlessly without one. I offered to pay for the launch, we set a date for 2019, and worked towards it.” In January 2018, a final timetable was confirmed, and the booking for shipping the craft to America was made.

The months that followed were taxing, and there were frequent threats to the project’s success. The 35-day shutdown of the American government from 22 December until 25 January threatened to derail the entire project.

“We had to put in a request for permission to transport the craft to the US,” says Kahn. “Because of the shutdown, we couldn’t contact anyone in government to grant it to us. The lack of permission was a major threat to the whole operation, because we were running on deadline. We had already made several other arrangements to assemble, test, and attach the craft to the Falcon 9 rocket before launch. The plane was booked, but if we couldn’t get permission in time, the project would have been called off.”

In spite of all his contacts in government, Kahn was initially unable to secure permission. By sheer good fortune, he reached out to a someone who, in a single day, made all the necessary transport arrangements. “I honestly don’t know how he did it,” Kahn says. “According to a former American transport official, the only way such permission could be obtained was if the project was shown to make a direct contribution to the security of the US. I don’t know what my contact did, but he got it done.”

Beresheet was successfully shipped to Cape Canaveral at the end of January, and prepared for launch over three weeks. Kahn visited the launch site himself, eager to watch the testing and assembly of the craft.

“The technology Elon Musk has developed for that site is incredible,” he says. “The rocket was very impressive. It was not ours exclusively. We were one of three customers who were jointly involved in boarding crafts onto the Falcon 9.”

When he witnessed the launch from Israel, the thrill he felt was tangible. “We watched the rocket shoot off into space, and were provided with ongoing verbal commentary as it went. I knew that people across Israel and the world were watching with us. Children who would be going to school in a few hours got up at 02:00 to see it. All of us were holding our breath.”

“I know that the launch aroused a sense of pride in every Israeli that day. Jews around the world, no matter where they were, felt the same thrill of knowing that we were up there with the superpowers who had launched their own crafts to the moon. Every person will remember where they were when this event took place.”

Following the success of the launch, Kahn eagerly awaits the landing, hoping it will be soft and smooth. He explains that the craft will increase its orbit in coming weeks until it comes within the moon’s field of gravity, drawn to the surface of the moon in about six weeks.

“So much will emerge from this,” he says. “Israel has already signed a contract with Germany to plan a similar project in the near future. This launch not only showcases Israeli innovation, but will encourage further technological development and inspire the next generation to lead the charge of innovation. This launch has done for Israel what the Apollo did for the US. It will have a tremendous effect for years to come.”

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