A historic almost-landing: Looking back at Beresheet

    To date, only a handful of nations have ever made it to the moon. The United States sent humans to the moon in 1969. The U.S.S.R. actually beat the U.S. to the lunar surface when they sent an unmanned mission in 1959. And China has also sent unmanned missions to the moon, with the first spacecraft landing on the far side of the moon earlier this year.

    In April, another attempt was made to land a lunar probe on the moon. This time, it was by a tiny country vying to be included among the world’s greatest superpowers: Israel.

    Google partially funded the moon mission after holding a competition. To win the contest, a privately held company had to submit the best proposal for “landing a robot on the surface of the moon, traveling 500 meters over the lunar surface, and sending images and data back to Earth.” SpaceIL, a non-profit organization founded in 2011, nabbed first place and received $20 million in prize money.

    Co-developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and SpaceIL, the lunar lander was called Beresheet, the Hebrew word for Genesis or, literally, “in the beginning.”

    The spaceship took six weeks to get to the moon. On April 11, Israel and the world held its breath as the spaceship prepared to land. But due to communications and engine failure, Beresheet crashed into the moon’s surface on its descent and was lost.

    Before wrecking, Beresheet snapped a picture of itself with the moon in the background, a shot many called the “most expensive selfie in history.”

    Though the landing was a failure, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin had a message for the children gathered at the President’s Residence for a pajama watch party. “Yes, we are disappointed, but there is no doubt that the achievements and abilities — of our scientists and of our country — are amazing,” he said.

    “True, sometimes there are disappointments, but these are null and void compared to our achievements, this night as well. That is why I am so happy to be here as president of this country with so many children. When we were children like you, we never dreamed we would journey to the moon,” the president continued. “I hope you will be the scientists who reach the moon and achieve much greater achievements. This is an important evening for the State of Israel, for its citizens and children, who see what we can do when we make the effort.”

    From the mission command center in Yehud, Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu watched the attempted landing. “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again,” he said. “We reached the moon and we will try again. Next time we want a soft landing. The attempt itself is a major accomplishment.”

    Just two days after Beresheet crashed, SpaceIL owner Morris Kahn announced there would be another attempted landing on the moon. And, as a consolation prize, Google gifted $1 million to SpaceIL to be applied to the upcoming mission.

    Ben Fisher
    Ben Fisher is a singer-songwriter based in Seattle. He lived in Israel between the predominantly Arab East and predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem for three years and used his experience there to write his folk/Americana album, Does the Land Remember Me?