My Word: Reaching for the Moon and freedom to choose

Like many in Israel and around the world, I held my breath on Thursday, April 11, as I watched what I hoped would be the successful landing of the SpaceIL lunar probe Beresheet on the Moon.

The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet takes a selfie 37,600 km from Earth. (photo credit: SPACEIL IAI)
The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet takes a selfie 37,600 km from Earth.
(photo credit: SPACEIL IAI)
‘Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” goes the saying. The expression itself is so successful that many people have a claim to being its parent in one form or another, from the ancient Greek general Tacticus to JFK. But it only goes so far. The Israeli experience last week suggests that it doesn’t get as far as the Moon, for example.
Like many in Israel and around the world, I held my breath on Thursday, April 11, as I watched what I hoped would be the successful landing of the SpaceIL lunar probe Beresheet on the Moon. I have been anthropomorphizing the washing machine-sized spacecraft ever since the scientists behind the project began talking about it in terms of it taking selfies on its long, long voyage.
If I was disappointed by its crash-landing only minutes before it was due to make history, I can barely imagine how the project’s initiators, scientists and backers must have felt as they watched Beresheet’s image disappear from the screens at the control room of the space center in Yehud and knew there was not going to be a happy ending.
Still, I was proud that Israel was one of the small club of seven countries to reach the lunar orbit, even if we were not destined yet to join the exclusive set of three countries that have successfully landed on the Moon. I was even more proud of the way others handled their disappointment.
“If it at first you don’t succeed, you try and try again – and we’ll try again,” declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the control center, where the event was being livestreamed. Reuven Rivlin, hosting young space enthusiasts at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, was also able to console the schoolchildren with words about a learning experience before leading them in the national anthem, “Hatikvah.”
Philanthropist Morris Kahn, who provided a large part of the financial backing for the private project, said: “I think we can be proud… you win some, you lose some.” He has already announced that he will help sponsor Beresheet II.
On Monday, Miri Regev, who heads the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols, announced that Kahn and Kfir Damari, one of the SpaceIL project’s three initiators, will jointly light a torch at the traditional Independence Day celebration on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl on May 8.
In some countries, when a venture fails, the president, prime minister and government do not try to offer comfort, and the country doesn’t get a blast from tweeting quips about the epic, very public, failure.
“If you’re going to fail, you might as well do it spectacularly,” as one radio broadcaster put it.
Many wags joked that Beresheet was a warning not to try parking and taking selfies at the same time; others noted that Israelis are not known for their driving skills and crashing while parking is par for the course.
With the (crash) landing coming only two days after the general election, several quips combined the two events: “Like Benny Gantz, Beresheet almost made it,” tweeted journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer.
“Pollster Mina Zemach and Benny Gantz are still waiting for it to land,” joked another journalist the next morning, referring to Gantz’s victory speech on April 9, given on the basis of Zemach’s exit poll. It was a victory speech given at a point when it was already apparent to most that his Blue and White Party did not have the necessary lead to create the next government, an orphaned failure.
As the election results were being published (the final, official tally only being announced on Wednesday), Israeli humor again came to the fore. And many people openly wondered how a country that could send a spacecraft to the Moon’s surface needed more than a week to count and to record 4.3 million ballot slips (out of 6.3 million eligible voters.)
“Only Bibi could send three generals back to basic training,” went one popular comment, referring to the way Netanyahu managed to beat Blue and White, led by three former chiefs of staff, Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. The fourth leader of Blue and White, Yair Lapid, who had a rotation agreement as future premier with Gantz, was obviously less than amused.
“We will make your life miserable in the opposition,” Lapid promised the Likud. “We are going to turn the Knesset into a battlefield.”
Some advice to Lapid: No one likes sore losers and there are better ways of keeping three former IDF chiefs busy than by turning the parliament into a combat zone. The job of the opposition isn’t to make the government miserable, but to provide democratic checks and balances. It’s an important function. And I repeat my suggestion from last week, that the opposition establish a British-style shadow cabinet instead of threatening shadowy bullying tactics.
Netanyahu is known to be striving for the goal of overtaking David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving Israeli premier, but he has quietly already reached a remarkable achievement. I can think of no other prime minister, anywhere, democratically elected five times (four of them consecutively.) This is in part due to his political prowess and partly due to having a system that does not limit the number of terms.
If Israel does adopt some form of the so-called “French Law,” granting the country’s leader immunity from prosecution during their time in office, it should definitely include a clause limiting the number of times the prime minister can serve.
New Right Party co-leader Naftali Bennett, who tried to make Netanyahu’s life miserable from around the same government table, finally conceded defeat on April 16, after a recount of votes in several polling stations. Bennett did not leave his party’s failure to cross the threshold as an orphan. He, unusually for a politician, accepted responsibility. Like those behind the Beresheet endeavor, Bennett can take some comfort in having come tantalizingly close and being able to build from the experience. And, former hi-tech entrepreneur that he is, Bennett seems to be already looking ahead, with hope in his heart.
On the subject of hearts, Israel marked up another incredible achievement this week when a team of scientists from Tel Aviv University announced they had succeeded in using a bio-printer to create the world’s first 3-D engineered heart “replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers,” in the words of the chief researcher Prof. Tal Dvir.
It didn’t take long for the jokes to start about printing hearts for politicians, but the medical breakthrough obviously has huge, serious potential. If it is ultimately able to be used for humans (something that could take about 10 years if all goes well, according to the TAU team), it would, among other things, solve two major problems with heart transplants – the need for a deceased donor and the risk of recipient rejection.
This is the modern Start-Up Nation at its finest. And on Friday, April 19 – with the full Moon shining above – we’ll witness a reminder of ancient Israel that is no less than miraculous. More than three thousand years after the biblical exodus from Egypt and the start of the 40-year journey to the Promised Land, millions of Jews around the world still keep the commandment of telling the story as if it happened personally to each of us. Faithfully keeping a tradition and a national memory alive for three millennia is a greater achievement than touching the Moon. Celebrating it as a free people in the State of Israel is the ultimate success story.
Beresheet carried a slogan on an Israeli flag “Am Yisrael Hai! (The People of Israel Lives!) Small country, big dreams.” It’s the perfect message for this holiday season. Perhaps instead of calling the next lunar probe Beresheet (Genesis) II, it should be named Shmot (Exodus) for the second of the Five Books of Moses.
Watch this space – and outer space.
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