“If at first you don’t succeed, you try again,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said April 11 after watching the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet’s unsuccessful lunar landing attempt from SpaceIL’s control center in the central Israeli city of Yehud.
Beresheet, or Genesis, came up short in its historic touchdown bid. The robotic spacecraft, which was built by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, was set to be the first Israeli craft — and first privately funded mission — to land on the moon. But Beresheet crashed into the lunar landscape at around 3:25 p.m. Mission control lost communications with the spacecraft when it was about 489 feet (149 meters) above the moon’s surface.
The spacecraft lost power in its main engine after sending a selfie from 22 kilometers (nearly 14 miles) above the surface of the moon, then went into a free fall toward the surface. The main engine reignited several kilometers above the surface before losing communication with the control room.
“We had a failure in the spacecraft,” said Opher Doron, general manager of IAI during a live broadcast from mission control. “We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully. It’s a tremendous achievement up until now.”
The list of moon-landing nations remains the United States, China and the former Soviet Union.
“Well we didn’t make it, but we definitely tried,” said Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur Morris Kahn, president of SpaceIL. “And I think the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud.”
SpaceIL, the nonprofit that founded the Beresheet program, livestreamed the landing on its Facebook page and on YouTube. At least 95,000 viewers tuned in to a live broadcast of the control room on YouTube, and the hundreds of chat messages a minute indicated that they were watching from throughout Israel, the United States and several other countries. (Some of the messages espoused anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian sentiments.)
Tens of thousands of Israelis watched the launch of the spacecraft from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Feb. 21 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
About 200 children and parents gathered at Israeli President’s Reuven Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem to watch the landing. “We don’t have to be disappointed. We should congratulate ourselves on what we have achieved,” Rivlin said.
Later, he added, “Sure we didn’t land exactly like we wanted, but we landed. We are on the moon!”
Before the landing attempt, the SpaceIL team remembered Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, who died in 2003 aboard Columbia when the space shuttle exploded during re-entry.
Beresheet was expected to touch down in the northeastern part of the Sea of Serenity, a flat area on the moon’s surface, sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. in Israel.
Last week, SpaceIL broadcast directly from its control room in Yehud as Beresheet successfully entered the moon’s orbit in its last major step before the moon landing, making Israel the seventh country to enter the moon’s orbit.
The unmanned craft’s engine was burned for six minutes, and the maneuver, the spacecraft’s seventh, was conducted with full communication between the control room and Beresheet. Several smaller engine burns have taken place since then to properly orient the spacecraft and enable a proper landing.
Beresheet has traveled over 3.4 million miles in its orbits around the earth and another 1 million around the moon. The mission cost about $100 million.
After landing on the moon, the spacecraft was slated to take photographs of the landing site and a selfie to prove it touched down safely. It also was to measure the moon’s magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
The spacecraft was going to leave a time capsule containing a database of hundreds of digital files ranging from details about the SpaceIL, the craft itself and the crew of the project to national symbols, cultural items and materials collected from the general public over the years, as well as the entire Bible printed in microscopic text on a coin. The spacecraft was not expected to return to earth.
SpaceIL was founded to compete in Google’s Lunar XPrize, a contest to see who could build the first private spacecraft to reach the moon. Co-founders Yonatan Winetraub, Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash submitted their application right at the deadline, Dec. 31, 2010, and went through a few failed experiments before building the right craft.
The size of a compact car, the craft has been said to look like a way-out washing machine and weighed about 1,300 pounds at launch, most of which was fuel.
The XPrize shut down without a winner last year, but along the way SpaceIL received enough funding to keep going. It has worked in partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries, and its donors include the U.S. billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, South African-Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn and Canadian-Israeli real estate mogul Sylvan Adams.
The organization also hopes to inspire Israeli kids to go into science and engineering, called the Apollo effect, by showing them that space exploration is achievable. Its educational programs have already reached more than 1 million children.
The iCenter, designed to help educators connect Jewish students with Israel, also has a section devoted to SpaceIL and Beresheet, including educational resources about the moon landing and Israel’s space program.
The international Jewish news agency JTA contributed to this report.