50 years later: Beresheet aims to create Israel's own 'Apollo Effect'

"Our goal was not just to build the first Israeli spacecraft, but to also make sure that it will not be the last one," co-founder Kfir Damari told The Jerusalem Post.

July 18, 2019 15:54
3 minute read.
50 years later: Beresheet aims to create Israel's own 'Apollo Effect'

The historic selfie image of Beresheet of the spacecraft approaching the lunar surface. (photo credit: SPACEIL IAI)

On July 20, 1969, an estimated 600 million people – one sixth of the world’s population – watched with fascination and anxiety as Apollo 11 touched down successfully on the Moon.

Broadcast on live television, history unfolded before their eyes as the Eagle landed and Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped foot on the lunar surface were inscribed in human memory for years to come.

The grainy, black-and-white images broadcast from the Sea of Tranquility would continue to have an impact long after the three astronauts on-board returned to Earth, serving as a source of inspiration for future generations of scientists and engineers – often referred to as the “Apollo Effect.”

Fifty years later, creating a similar moment of collective inspiration was at the core of Israel’s recent endeavor by nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries to reach the Moon.

Coined the “Beresheet Effect,” educating and igniting the imagination of both children and adults was a key priority for SpaceIL and its three co-founders since the very inception of the project in 2011.

“Our goal was not just to build the first Israeli spacecraft, but to also make sure that it will not be the last one,” co-founder Kfir Damari told The Jerusalem Post.

SpaceIL co-founders Kfir Damari (L), Yonatan Weintraub (C) and Yariv Bash (R) take a selfie in front of a model of the Beresheet spacecraft, near the control room, in Yahud, Israel, April 11, 2019 (Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

“That is why, in addition to building Beresheet, we established an educational department assisted by hundreds of volunteers through the years. We have met more than one million children and told them our story.”

Of course, conversations surrounding the privately-funded mission quickly transcended the classroom, and it became a national and international talking point during Beresheet’s seven-week, 6.5 million km. journey to the Moon.

The true impact of SpaceIL, Damari said, will only be witnessed in the future as today’s students become tomorrow’s scientists. He also believes the failure to soft-land Beresheet could even enhance its ability to educate and inspire.

Engineers lost contact with the spacecraft only minutes before it was due to complete the historic lunar landing on April 11 – a feat previously completed only by the United States, Russia (then the USSR) and China, backed by giant sums far exceeding Beresheet’s modest NIS 350 million ($99m.) budget.

“The fact that we didn’t soft-land led kids to have deep conversations with their educators and parents about the meaning of success. You need to experience a lot of failures and you need have a lot of resilience in the process,” said Damari.

“The hard-landing actually enabled lots of kids to really understand the challenges in science, and it’s their job to take those challenges upon themselves.”

While SpaceIL and its lead donor, Morris Kahn, quickly stated their ambition to launch a second spacecraft to the Moon within two years, the organization announced last month that reattempting the same mission would not present a sufficiently great challenge.

If some enthusiasts might have been disappointed by the announcement, Damari emphasized that the decision is about broadening their horizons even further.

“It’s possible that we will return to the Moon, but we won’t give a green light to the same project with the same design,” Damari said.

“We decided that we want to look for different options – maybe to go to the Moon and come back or to take something special with us. We’re also thinking about other places, including the ability to go beyond the Moon.”

Whatever mission is ultimately chosen by SpaceIL, the organization is not taking its foot off the gas when it comes to keeping the “Beresheet Effect” rolling.

Educational work is continuing, Damari said, both in terms of science and engineering, and also in terms of encouraging Israel’s children and teenagers to dream big and pull out all the stops to make those dreams come true.

“We’re working with the Education Ministry to get the story of Beresheet into school textbooks and make sure everybody will be consuming it,” said Damari.

“We are also planning to build an exhibition to showcase the components of the spacecraft so that everybody can see how it was built, and present the story behind it to everyone, both today and in the future.”

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