It all began with a post on Facebook—what a sign of the times.
“Who wants to go to the moon?” inquired Yariv Bash, a respected computer engineer interested in making space exploration more affordable, attainable, and attractive. A few of Bash’s now intrigued colleagues, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub, responded with an invitation to a bar in Holon, a city just south of Tel Aviv. “As the alcohol levels in our blood increased, we became more determined,” Winetraub recounts of the epoch-making evening. After their last round, it was decided. SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organization led by Bash, was formed and they were indeed going to the moon.
On the eve of November 21, 2019, following 8 years of designing, planning, experimenting, failing, tweaking, and finalizing, the fruit of their labor, a small spacecraft called Beresheet (the name is a reference to the first word of the Torah, which translates to “Genesis” or “In the beginning”) blasted into space atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
If the mission had succeeded, it would have been a momentous moment for the world at large: the first time that a private company had traveled to the moon. More specifically, though, it would have been a point of immense pride for Israel. At the time, only government agencies in superpowers nations—the US, the Soviet Union, and China—had successfully landed on the moon.
Originally, when he founded SpaceIL in 2011, Bash’s goal was to win the Google Lunar X Prize contest—the first privately financed venture to place a robotic spacecraft on the moon was to take home a grand prize of $20 million. At first, such a sum of money seemed outrageously superfluous to them, for they had imagined a tiny, 12-pound robot that would land on the Moon by the end of 2012 and cost them no more than $10 million. However, as the project unfolded, this idealistic notion rebranded itself and became quite unfeasible. “We didn’t imagine how much time and effort it would take,” Damari later recalled.
Soon, following many an extension, the GLXP deadline passed with no winner declared. Unlike most of their competitors who simply wanted to create profitable businesses, SpaceIL persisted after the competition, doing so because they had a meaningful mission in mind, one good enough to incite perseverance even during such a tumultuous time: encouraging Israeli students to discover an interest in science and engineering. “This is our vision,” Damari expressed, and while he and SpaceIL built the first Israeli spaceship to venture into the expanses of our universe, according to them, it lays in today’s students’ hands “to build the next one.”
All along, the mission was geared more toward enthusiastic volunteers and philanthropists than venture capitalists, and the term “philanthropists” was mostly constituted of supportive friends and family of SpaceIL employees—they were the blossoming garage band amongst the Beatles and Rolling Stones of the space universe. It was a rocky road to the finish line as donors fell through, funds seemed to vanish from thin air, and the three founders began to drift apart. After all that diligence and dedication, you would hope something would come of the endeavor.
In February 2020, Beresheet reached the launchpad and was ready for take-off. Ultimately, it orbited the moon, a historical feat in and of itself seeing as only the European Space Agency and five other nations—the US, the Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan—had accomplished the same. Some 2,500 well-wishers had set up their lawn chairs near the command center and millions more their Youtube live streams to see the rocket off. But, during the most pain-staking sequence of the mission, it stumbled and plummeted to the surface of the moon.
The beginning of the automated landing drill went smoothly. Beresheet was meant to settle on the northeastern section of a lava plain called the Sea of Serenity, a flat surface with few craters. At an altitude of 13 miles, the spacecraft even managed to sneak in a selfie with the moon in the backdrop. Nonetheless, the atmosphere both in the control room and on the stream chat quickly grew tense when Opher Doron, the general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ Space Division, announced, “We seem to have a problem with our main engine. We are resetting the spacecraft to try to enable the engine.” In the wake of a nerve-racking back-and-forth about the stability of the engine, Doron then added, “The main engine is back on, but we have lost communication with the spacecraft.”
Nothing else would ever be heard from Beresheet. The mission was over. It hadn’t failed, but it hadn’t succeeded. This was the first privately-funded spacecraft sent into lunar orbit, and regardless of the fact that the project terminated without a successful lunar landing, Yavir Bash’s original goal had been achieved. Asaf Ezrai, a 19-year-old aspiring scientist remarked, “I was a little bit depressed but it’s a great achievement even to come to this conclusion.” I know I don’t speak solely for myself when I say that although the mission wasn’t operative in the expected sense, it was still an incredible step forward, a milestone in the scientific community, and an impetus for scientifically-inclined students such as myself to investigate the realm of space exploration more seriously.
And, fortunately, Bash wasn’t making false promises when, in 2019, he proclaimed, “It’s not the end of the journey.” On Wednesday, December 9, 2020, SpaceIL revealed that Beresheet 2, a more complex, revised version of the first craft—this time with two landers and an orbiter—would launch in the former half of 2024 and under the same budget as the first mission. In an interview, Damari and Winetraub clarified that they were not going to churn out a carbon copy of Beresheet. The two landers would be much smaller than the first spacecraft, fully fueled, and land on different parts of the moon, and the orbiter would revolve around the moon for at least a couple of years. Even though the design plan is completely new, many of the aspects that made Beresheet remarkable will be recycled. The SpaceIL founders say they’ve learned valuable lessons from their previous mistakes and shortcomings that will increase the probability of success with Beresheet 2.
Earth to SpaceIL. Do you copy? I repeat, Earth to SpaceIL, we’re all wishing upon a star hoping that the thrilling prospect of a second Beresheet takes shape. For now, Beresheet 1 has opened our eyes to the possibilities of technological advancement on Earth and all the far-fetched dreams and insane propositions it can make come true here, on the moon, and beyond. SpaceIL began their mission in vivo with a Facebook post and a couple of drinks, thus demonstrating how the best ideas are born: serendipitously and collaboratively. Their mission has stirred us all into cherishing the gravity of innovation. It has inspired us to recognize the power of the unknown and how we, especially the younger generation, hold the key to unlocking it.