The Beresheet mission

On the moon, but not over the moon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) is flanked by (from left) two of the SpaceIL co-founders Yariv Bash, Yonatan Winetraub, SpaceIL President Morris Kahn and IAI Chairman Harel Locker, and his wife Sara (from the right) (photo credit: SPACEIL IAI)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) is flanked by (from left) two of the SpaceIL co-founders Yariv Bash, Yonatan Winetraub, SpaceIL President Morris Kahn and IAI Chairman Harel Locker, and his wife Sara (from the right)
(photo credit: SPACEIL IAI)
On February 21, 2019 Israel launched its first spacecraft to the moon, called Beresheet (Genesis). After its long journey and numerous elliptical orbits around the Earth, it came close to landing on Thursday, April 11.
Unfortunately, Beresheet did not land as planned and right before snapping its last selfie and transmitting it back to the control room in Yehud, it crashed. While communication was ultimately lost with Beresheet, Israel’s mission to the moon is far from over.
Minutes before Beresheet was due to land, Harel Locker, chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) reminded the audience that “although Ilan [Ramon] is not with us today, the State of Israel… will be landing on the moon.”
The second and last image snapped by Beresheet before its crashThe second and last image snapped by Beresheet before its crash
He encouraged Israeli youth to “dream and aspire…. There is no limit to the mind and achievements of a person, Kfir [Damarai], Yonatan [Winetraub] and Yariv [Bash], you are the real superstars here,” he said of the three co-founders of SpaceIL who first came up with the idea to enter a lunar module into the original Google X Lunar Competition in 2007.
An emotional Morris Kahn, the president of SpaceIL, was in attendance too, and noted that he is “excited but feels fantastic,” adding that he “feels the warmth of all the attendees and hopes the project will encourage children to pursue STEM-related fields.”
Kahn donated more than $40 million dollars to the project, the most of any single donor. People sat watching the world over, from the US to India, which is planning its own moon landing, and South Africa, Kahn’s birthplace. The excitement was not limited to Israel alone.
SpaceIL and IAI published a live link, in which the Beresheet mission could be viewed anywhere in the world, via their YouTube channel.
“This gives us in Israel much pride… and all the Jews in the world [as well],” said Kahn. “This warms my heart.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also attended, following his successful reelection as prime minister, together with his wife, Sara.
“We had great pride when Ilan Ramon [went up into space]… and now we have the first Israeli spacecraft, Beresheet is going to land on the Moon. This is another important step for mankind and a giant step for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu proudly exclaimed. “This will make us the fourth country in the world.”
He continued, “Although other countries are bigger than us, [we are] fearless, [and our] total devotion to the goal – what we accomplished in 70 years alone – [allowed us to] pass great hurdles to reach the peaks of the moon. This is a sign… that we can reach any goals we set for ourselves – there is no limit. [Theodor] Herzl said many years ago, ‘If you wish it, it is no dream.’ You all proved just that it wasn’t just a dream – we are on the map of the moon – this is a fantastic achievement.”
He went on to thank Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, the founders of SpaceIL, Kahn and the other donors who contributed to the project – including Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and Sylvan Adams – as well as the scientists and engineers who worked tirelessly on the project.
The project was astounding for many reasons – not only did it take Israeli ingenuity and innovation – it presented a microcosm of Israeli society. Both old and young engineers worked together, as well as religious and secular as one.
Ido Antebi, CEO of SpaceIL and Opher Doron, Space Division Project Manager at IAI explained in real-time Beresheet’s landing path via a diagram, adding that it [was scheduled to land] at 1,700 meters per second. They added that the spacecraft’s velocity must be curbed to zero before landing, when it is at a distance of 800 meters from the lunar surface. The main engine had to be activated in order to the begin the landing process.
The historic selfie image of Beresheet of the spacecraft approaching the lunar surface
According to an initial investigation, a command sent from the SpaceIL control room caused a malfunction, rendering a soft landing on the moon impossible, Anteby said. “This led to a chain of events in the spacecraft, which turned off the main engine and prevented proper engine activation,” he said. “Without the main engine running it was impossible to stop Beresheet’s velocity.”
Beresheet’s engine was restarted by the control room crew, but by that time its speed was too high and a soft landing could not be completed as planned.
“What is important now is to learn the best possible lessons from our mistakes and bravely continue forward,” Kahn added. “That’s the message we’d like to convey to the people in Israel and the entire world. This is the spirit of the Beresheet project.”
The malfunction on the spacecraft occurred at 14 kilometers (almost 9 miles) above the moon, only minutes before it was due to complete the historic landing – a feat previously achieved only by the United States, Russia (then the USSR) and China.
It was the end of an epic seven-week, 6.5 million-kilometer journey that started when Beresheet, an ambitious mission developed by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on board a SpaceX rocket.
As Beresheet provided two selfies, the first of the spacecraft against the backdrop of the moon’s surface and the second as it approached the lunar field. It activated its main engine to loud applause in the control room, and was just 22 kilometers from the landing site before communication with the craft was first broken.
It wasn’t clear at first whether communication with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory failed, but luckily a picture returned to the screen after a few minutes. As the engineers scrambled to fix a glitch in the main engine, problems in one of the adjacent engines caused the crew to lose telemetry (communication with the craft) for a few moments, leading it to reset the main engine from Earth to restart the landing process. Beresheet appeared on a slant, and was not in an optimal position to land.
A mere minute later, all communication was lost with the craft, and it was presumed to have crashed on the moon. Damari said it was still unclear exactly what happened with the craft, but all possible reasons for its failure would be analyzed in the coming months.
However, the joint crew at IAI and SpaceIL lauded the tremendous achievement and appeared optimistic in follow-up interviews.
“We didn’t make it but we definitely tried,” Kahn said. said. “I think the achievement of what we reached, we can be proud. If at first you don’t succeed, you try again. Parts of the spacecraft are on the moon. We tried our best. Israel made it to the moon, and Beresheet’s journey hasn’t ended. I expect Israel’s next generation to complete the mission for us.”
“Let’s applaud for all the wonderful people who brought the Israeli spacecraft to the moon,” a teary President Reuven Rivlin told dozens of Israeli children at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
“Sometimes there are disappointments, but they are null compared to the achievements we have reached this night. There is no need to be disappointed – we should welcome what we have achieved,” he added.
After the crash, the team proclaimed: “We are on the moon – just not as we hoped.”
As Rivlin began belting out the national anthem, others joined in, as well as the prime minister, donors, scientists, the crew and reporters in the audience, singing solemnly and proudly.
Netanyahu then turned to Bash and asked, “Yariv, so how long will it take to send the second spacecraft to the moon?”
Bash smiled. “We’ll get there,” he said.
The prime minister then looked at Kahn. “Morris, will you match [this project’s donations] in two to three years?”
Kahn smiled as well. “Let’s talk,” he said.
“Put it on your calendars!” Netanyahu said. “In the next three years we will have the next spacecraft on the moon.”
Kahn later announced plans to finance the next spacecraft – Beresheet 2.
“This is part of my message to the younger generation: Even if you do not succeed at first, you get up and try again,” said Kahn, who has appointed an engineering team to begin immediately and is recruiting a new group of donors.
As Israel celebrated the festival of Passover, and many Jews around the world said, “Next year in Jerusalem,” the Jewish state can hope in the next few years it will finally land properly and safely on the moon.