Israel failed to become the first nation to land a privately financed spacecraft on the moon when “Beresheet” crashed before a scheduled touch down in the Sea of Tranquility late Thursday night.
The main engine failed a few kilometers above the surface, leaving nothing to slow the craft’s descent, said Opher Doron, general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.’s space division. The $100 million project was a joint venture between a private company, SpaceIL, and state-owned IAI, financed mostly by philanthropists including SpaceIL President Morris Kahn, a founder of Amdocs Ltd., and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
“We got within a short distance of that soft landing, but this is what happens in space,” Kahn said. “There’s some desire already to plan the next launch, and the next one will do better and we will succeed.” Yariv Bash, one of SpaceIL's founders, said the group would send up another probe within two or three years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in the IAI control room for the landing, said that “if at first you don’t succeed, you try again. We’ll try again.”
“We did reach the moon, but not in one piece.”
Israelis around the country gathered to watch the landing, including at the president’s residence. The arrivals and departures board at Ben-Gurion International Airport showed one unusual destination among the typical ones: “Moon.”
Before the scheduled landing, Netanyahu strode through the IAI control room, shaking hands with engineers. “We’re not just on the map — we’re on the map of the moon,” he said. “This has consequences, not just for Israel but for the world.”
The crowd erupted in cheers as Beresheet sent back a selfie with the moon in the background, showing an Israeli flag inscribed with the words, “Small Country, Big Dreams.” Moments later, a voice in the control room was heard saying, “There’s a problem in the main engine.” As the minutes ticked by with no communication from the capsule, engineers in the control room held their heads in shock.
IAI’s Doron then took the microphone: “According to all the signs, we won't be the fourth country to land on the moon.”
Israel’s prior experience in space also ended in disaster. The country’s first astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon, died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. In 2016, an Israeli-made satellite was destroyed when the SpaceX rocket it was on blew up during a launch test.
“It’s part of this business. It’s a risky business,” Ehud Hayun, an IAI systems engineer, said Thursday. “Space is hard.”
The project was originally conceived by a group of friends over drinks at a Tel Aviv-area bar, in response to a Google technology competition with a $20 million prize. Though nobody won the contest, the partners sought out sponsors rather than give up the quest.
Beresheet launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Feb. 22, aboard a SpaceX rocket. The probe separated from the vehicle after a half-hour, orbiting the Earth in larger and larger ellipses before entering the moon’s gravitational pull about a week ago.
To save size and money, Beresheet’s designers decided to skip the kind of backup systems for power, communications and the like that are standard on most spacecraft. That left no margin for error if any key system failed.
“It was by far the smallest, cheapest spacecraft ever to get to the moon,” Doron said. “We did reach the moon, but not in one piece.”
By Michael Arnold