Look for the circle labeled “laser,” SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Weintraub explained to me at around 9:25 PM on Thursday night. Beresheet, the Israeli-built lunar lander and the first privately built object to orbit the moon, would soon begin its final descent to the surface. The craft was locked into a tight elliptical orbit that was supposed to bring it to only 25 kilometers above its landing zone shortly after 10 PM. The spacecraft would then trace a semi-circular path to angle itself to the ground. At one kilometer of altitude, Beresheet would reach a “point of no return” and begin firing all of its engines in order to decelerate the lander, which had been traveling at around 6,000 kilometers per hour just a few minutes before. The engine burn would reduce the onboard fuel supply such that an abort to orbit would be impossible.
The landing process was entirely automated below one kilometer leaving the craft’s fate out of any human being’s control as soon as the final approach was initiated. But Weintraub said that three kilometers above the surface, shortly before “no return,” Bereshit would deploy a laser-based system to determine its total distance from the landing site. It was the only critical mission component that hadn’t been tested in space yet. “If it turns on, if the laser gets data, that’s a big, big milestone,” he said. “That jumps our chances of landing dramatically.”
SpaceIL’s staffers, founders, donors, and assorted journalists were gathered inside Building 100 at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) campus in Yahud. The anonymous structure just north of the Ben Gurion airport perimeter is where Israel’s satellites are designed and tracked; IAI was the major contractor for SpaceIL and built Beresheet. During the landing, Weintraub and his co-founders, Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash, sat in an auditorium behind a window looking into the control room, whose entrance is tucked behind an elevator bank just off of the building’s atrium. In the nearby lobby was a gold-foiled cylinder the diameter of a large truck tire and the thickness of a washing machine, perched atop four spindly metal insect legs with piping, panels, and mirror-like censors jutting towards some imaginary cosmic abyss.
Was it surreal to be here, standing next to a mockup of a spacecraft he’d helped will into existence? I asked Kfir Damari, with the landing just a half-hour away. “I think it’s more surreal that this is the mockup and the real one is not here anymore,” he replied.
A string of dignitaries posed in front of the model Beresheet. Even the baklava and fancy pretzels on offer in the building’s back patio were details for the historical record: Here’s what we were eating when Israel became the fourth country to land on the moon. This was an important night for am Yisrael and medinat Yisrael, Israel Aerospace Industries board chair Harel Locker told the crowd minutes before the scheduled landing, displaying a copy of a drawing by an Auschwitz inmate that Ilan Ramon had taken aboard the Columbia’s doomed final mission in 2003. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a tower of calculation and steadiness, displayed emotions thrillingly out of character for him when he addressed the auditorium, as if tears and laughter were battling to overtake him first.
Every second felt heavy enough to burst. The Jews, hounded and persecuted for millennia, were planting their flag and their book on the moon, where they would forever remain. Although, Bash said, it was important to remember that along with the Hebrew Bible, almost the entire Gutenberg Collection of global literature was on the craft as well, printed on quarter-sized disks in text the size of bacteria. “If aliens came in one million years from now and found the Earth was all dust, there will still be something to tell our story.”
Inside the control room, where the prime minister shook hands with every one of the 20 or so engineers and technicians, the was a sign reading: “Am Yisrael Chai: Small country, big dreams.” Here, in a nondescript building between an airport runway and a Supersol grocery store, Israel would touch the sublime. There’d be a pure and eternal moment of wonder and joy that would entrance the entire world and echo through history: dream and reality would be reconciled, and through all the violence and sadness and doubt we’d all glimpse Israel as we imagined it.
The final screen depicted a pixelated computer image of Beresheett at a right-tilting angle and an altitude of 149 meters, as far from the lunar surface as the midway point of the Empire State Building is from 34th street. The laser light was illuminated green—that piece of the puzzle had been worked out at least. The engines were off, and fuel mass was down to 76 kilograms, a quarter of what it had been when the descent began. There had been a dreadful final minute of ambiguity: Telemetry was lost. Then it was back. Then contact was lost. Then the spacecraft’s system was rebooted from the ground. Then communications were back—were they back?—but the engines were off. It had all been going so well.
“The spacecraft is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing right now” we’d learned a few eternal moments earlier. There were guilty smiles in the control room and stifled shrieks of amazement out in the lobby when that final selfie appeared on screen, a metallic Isaeli flag cropped against the cratered moonscape, destined for the imminent wilderness of another world. Afterwards, it turned out that there had been simulations that had gone worse than the actual landing—at least up until the very, very end. But the Israeli reputation for bluntness is well-earned, and allowing hope to linger would have been especially cruel. “The craft didn’t land successfully. We were still the seventh country to orbit the moon and the 4th to make it to the moon’s surface,” someone announced. Later came a final verdict at the press conference from IAI space division general manager Ofer Doron—astonishing, mind-boggling worlds for anyone to speak, never mind as casually as he managed to: “We definitely crashed on the surface of the moon.”
The span between the first loss of telemetry and word that the landing failed was maybe three minutes tops, and probably much less. A cosmic drama quickly and unexpectedly became a human one. How do you make sense of getting so close and losing the mission? One could soon attain some purely descriptive understanding of what occurred: As Doron told the media afterwards, a malfunction in the inertial measurement system led to a cascade of events that resulted in an accidental full engine cutoff. Beresheet was built with almost no redundancies, so there wasn’t a second computer to take over at the first sign of real trouble. The mission depended on a thin margin for error during the final 450 feet of its interplanetary journey (although it later turned out that the problems started 14 kilometers from the surface). One could only imagine the gold cylinder in the lobby dropping at a rate of around six feet per second, and then commencing its eternity in the lunar dust with a final, soundless thud.
That final thud had surely been felt, many tens of thousands of miles away, by Yonatan Weintraub, Kfir Damari, and Yariv Bash, who had experienced something that no one in the history of humankind had ever felt, since no one had ever crash-landed a privately designed and funded lunar lander before.
“We made a tremendous effort,” Morris Khan, the spry 89-year old Israeli billionaire who provided Space IL with over $40 million in financing, said during the post-landing press conference.
“We chose to dream, we chose to do, and we we were not afraid.”
Then Weintraub: “To the kids watching today: We didn’t reach in one piece. However, engineering and science is hard. Sometimes it doesn’t work on the first try, or even the second, or the third, or even the fourth. But eventually, it will work.”
Bash: “There are kids watching, saying, I’m gonna build a better one.”
The jokes began immediately, of course.
“This is a big metaphor for life in Israel,” one journalist quipped in what was definitely an Israeli accent. A more edifying comment, from one of the funders of the mission, likened the endeavour to the Passover song Diyenu: If only the probe had succeeded in reaching its correct altitude after launch, diyenu. If only all the maneuvers had gone successfully, diyenu. If only Bereshit had entered lunar orbit, diyenu. There were countless diyenus. One of the most audacious private space ventures ever attempted had been, at worst, a 95% success. “We got Israel to places we didn’t magine before,” Damari said. “The Israeli flag is still on the surface, on an Israeli-made spacecraft,” said Weintraub.
As the crowd dispersed, a stern-faced middle-aged man in a gray suit began passing out brownies from a tupperware container. It turned out this was Danny Grossman, the businessman and former Israeli fighter pilot whose early donation enabled the three founders to enter the Google Lunar X Prize competition eight years earlier. His mood was anything but stern or even disappointed (in general, the post-landing atmosphere in Yahud was dour but not openly mournful). In the very beginning, the trio of founders were engineers in their mid to late 20s who had met on Facebook—it would be years before SpaceIL would become an industrial-scale concern, with scores of other engineers and scientists involved. “They had three weeks to get $50,000—not trivial to get to guys who had one too many beers and big dreams,” Grossman explained. “This is the legacy of SpaceIL: It’s a project that started with three young guys who refused to take the word ‘no.’”
To Grossman, the night did not feel like failure. “It’s not an ending. Why is this an ending?,” he asked. By Saturday afternoon, Morris Khan had already announced Beresheet 2.