How Israel almost landed on the Moon

Using the story of Beresheet as its background, To the Moon on a Plastic Bottle traces how Israel’s unique cultural style has made the country a world leader in technology.

THE ISRAELI spacecraft ‘Beresheet’ takes a selfie 37,600 km. from Earth. (photo credit: SPACE IL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
THE ISRAELI spacecraft ‘Beresheet’ takes a selfie 37,600 km. from Earth.
‘Who wants to come with me to the moon?” wrote Yariv Bash, a 32-year-old computer engineer, one morning in 2010, on his Facebook page. Bash’s fanciful post led to the creation of SpaceIL, the Israeli organization that developed Beresheet, the unmanned Israeli spacecraft that launched to the moon in February 2019, reached lunar orbit in April and crash-landed on the moon’s surface on April 11, 2019. Beresheet was the first Israeli spacecraft to travel beyond Earth’s orbit, and notably, was the first privately funded lunar landing on the moon. Though it ultimately crashed, the flight captivated the attention of the Israeli public, which was riveted to the unlikely quest.
Using the story of Beresheet as its background, To the Moon on a Plastic Bottle traces how Israel’s unique cultural style has made the country a world leader in technology. Israel has more start-ups than many larger countries, including Japan, China, India and Great Britain, and lists 63 Israeli companies on the NASDAQ, the US stock exchange – more than any other foreign country. What is the secret of the country’s intellectual prowess?
The authors suggest that the legacy of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, who heeded God’s call to leave his birthplace and head for the unknown land of Canaan, is imprinted in the DNA of the Jewish people.
“The push to continue to march toward the unknown and the unforeseeable,” write Raviv and Bar-El, “without worrying about what will be and with a willingness to break conventions on behalf of future generations,” is what makes Israelis unique. Taking the Biblical theme one step further, they cite the Israelites’ expression of acceptance of the Torah at Sinai – we will do, and we will listen – as a call to action out of complete faith, even during a time of uncertainty. That quality combined with Israeli chutzpah – which the authors term audaciousness – is what has enabled Israelis to succeed. It is not a religious mandate, they explain. “Whether you believe in God, yourself, or your abilities, the main thing is to believe.”
“Israelis are often considered to be talented, outspoken, sometimes rude, vociferous, impatient, vulgar and cheeky,” note the authors. They are constantly trying to cut in line and are crazy drivers. It is these very qualities, they suggest, that have helped Israelis succeed in the world of high-tech. The ability to contest authority, argue, challenge accepted norms and thrive in the chaos of the Middle East have helped Israelis succeed. In addition, the country’s precarious position, surrounded by enemies, has made innovation a national mission. A prime example, they add, is the Iron Dome project, which has defended Israel from thousands of enemy missiles, and is an excellent example of out-of-the-box original thinking.
Each chapter of the book begins with a brief summary that tells the inspirational story of renowned Israeli scientists who succeeded against the odds, including Nobel-Prize winning laureates Daniel Kahaneman, Aaron Ciechanover, Yisrael Aumann, and others. Their experiences and struggles to succeed shed light on the successes of the heads of today’s Israeli startups. Ciechanover, the 2004 Nobel laureate in chemistry, who lost his parents at a young age, said, “My father taught me the saying, ‘A person must not go through the world without leaving a mark.’”
While much of the book describes the Israeli ethos of hi-tech success, the authors provide a fascinating description of the development of the Beresheet project, from the first meeting between Yariv Bash and his partners Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub at a bar in Holon, where the trio sketched out the first preliminary plans for their spacecraft, to their application for the Lunar X Prize competition, Google’s initiative to promote the idea of sending private space vehicles to the moon. Bash, Damari and Winetraub enlisted the financial assistance of hi-tech entrepreneur Morris Kahn, founder of Amdocs, Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson, and received assistance from the Israeli government. The unmanned Beresheet probe, at 585 kg., was the smallest and least expensive (approximately $100 million) spacecraft ever designed to fly to the moon.
In January 2018, 11 years after it had been announced, Google ended the Lunar X competition, because none of the teams had reached the final date for launching. Despite the contest’s cancellation, all five teams decided to continue the quest. On February 22, 2019, the Beresheet spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a SpaceX launch vehicle. On April 4, the spacecraft reached an orbit around the moon. On the night of April 11, the main engine stopped functioning, communication was lost, and it crash-landed on the moon. Despite the unexpected ending, Israelis were proud of their effort, as Israel became the seventh country to make lunar orbit, and just the fourth country in the world to have attempted a landing on the moon. Shortly thereafter, plans were announced for a second unmanned spacecraft, to be called Beresheet 2.
To the Moon on a Plastic Bottle presents a quick and accurate study of Israel’s entrepreneurial start-up culture and provides a deeper understanding of the fast-paced, frenetic pulse of the country. While I am not convinced that the Biblical analogies presented by the authors are a definitive reason for the so-called Jewish genius, there is no doubt that the value that Judaism, and by extension, Israeli society places on knowledge and learning, is a key component in Israel’s hi-tech and military success.
This idea is perhaps best expressed in the book’s introduction, in which authors mention a panel discussion held between Jewish and Arab historians in early 1990s. One of the Arab historians asked Prof. Moshe Lissak, a well-known Jewish sociologist, to explain how tiny Israel vanquished the Arab states in 1948. Lissak replied, “The big mistake that you and your colleagues are making is the idea that we beat you in 1948. We beat you long before the War of Independence. It happened in 1925, on the day that we announced the establishment of a university in Jerusalem.”

By Dan Raviv
and Linor Bar-El
Gefen Publishing House
280 pages; $18.