How Israel’s Moon Lander Got to the Launchpad

The United States and the former Soviet Union sent robotic landers to the moon beginning in 1966, part of the space race that culminated with the Apollo 11 astronauts stepping foot on the moon in 1969. In 2013, China became the third nation to send a spacecraft to the moon, and this year, it became the first to land one on the moon’s far side.

Back in November 2010, it was a rush for the SpaceIL founders just to get to the starting line. The Google competition had been announced three years earlier. About 30 teams had already entered, and the deadline for submissions was the end of the year. From friends and family, Mr. Bash, Mr. Damari and Mr. Winetraub scrounged $50,000 for the entry fee, and on Dec. 31, they sent in the money and the paperwork with less than two hours to spare.

From the beginning, their pitch was geared to philanthropists, not venture capitalists.

“It’s a very different story than a commercial company trying to explain how they’re going to return the investment of the investors,” Mr. Bash said. “It’s one of the best decisions we made in the beginning.”

One of the people who heard their presentation was Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications billionaire. “I gave them $100,000, no questions asked,” Mr. Kahn said, “and I said, ‘Start.’”

Mr. Kahn said at the beginning he just wanted to help. “Eventually, not only I got sucked in, I sucked myself in,” he said. “I got excited by this project.”

Mr. Kahn became president of SpaceIL and recruited other investors including Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino billionaire and major donor to the Republican Party in the United States.

As a nonprofit, SpaceIL also tapped the energy of volunteers. “If you were interested in space and wanted to do something beyond your day job, you could volunteer and give some of your time,” Mr. Winetraub said.