Israel’s moon mission fails at the final hurdle — but it will be back

Spending the evening at mission control, Nathan Jeffay meets Israelis determined to try again and succeed


Failure has rarely been so exhilarating.

The anticipation was palpable at Moon Mission HQ as Beresheet embarked on its landing routine. There was joy as a selfie arrived from just above the surface, but the joy quickly became worry.

I would say it was a rollercoaster ride but that seems trite — after all, theme parks are so often trying to simulate what they imagine space travel to be like. This was space, with all its danger and uncertainty.

There were gasps when we were told there was a problem with the main engine.

It felt for a moment like we were watching an episode of the Channel 4 series The IT Crowd, where tech support automatically tells people to “turn it off and on again.”

The on-and-off trick worked and the engine hummed back into action, but there were deeper problems and it was not possible to slow the landing enough to keep Beresheet in one piece.

The disappointment was overwhelming. Somehow, even though this was a distant possibility and the final phase of the mission was highly risky, people had been confident that something momentous was about to happen.

Maybe it was the fact that, when three innovators started working on Beresheet in 2011, it seemed so unlikely they would even manage to build something close to a spacecraft.

“In the beginning we were really dreaming,” Eran Privman, who was SpaceIL chief executive for five years, told me as he waited for the landing.

“We thought we could do it but no one else thought it could be done. We didn’t know how it was going to work.”

I remember visiting the SpaceIL offices in 2013 and wondering if that room in a shabby Tel Aviv University building without working air conditioning would really be the powerhouse of a space mission.

Could the inexperienced team — one member was just 15 at the time — really make this happen?

The fact they not only completed the spacecraft but also got it so far from Earth and into the Moon’s orbit made Israelis, and in particular the people who were at Mission Control, feel that there was “just” one final stage to go before history would be made.

Failure was not part of the plan.

But shortly after news of the crash sunk in, a realisation spread at Moon Landing HQ that the mission was, nevertheless, historic.

Israel has still become one of the seven countries to reach lunar orbit and even that Berersheet crashed to the moon one of the four countries to get a craft there — albeit in this case not intact.

“It is by far the smallest, the cheapest spacecraft ever to get to the moon,” Opher Doron, general manager of the space division at Israel Aerospace Industries, said in a hastily-arranged press conference, as waiters, realising there was not going to be a party, cleared away desserts.

“It is the first time it is a non-government mission to get to the moon.”

And far quicker than British rail companies sort out leaves-on-the-line problems, SpaceIL staff were talking about the second attempt: Beresheet 2.

The 88-year-old philanthropist, Morris Kahn, who made Beresheet possible and, a couple of hours earlier, told me what motivated him to get involved, said that in the next mission “we will do better and we will learn and we will succeed”.

The evening was quintessentially Israeli. A celebration of a harebrained unlikely idea, a venture that saw Israelis inspiring their nation, diaspora Jews, and others around the world. Things going pear shaped. A plucky response, and determination by the engineers to dust themselves off and try again.

It was a tribute to an initiative that brought together all ages from the octogenarian Mr Khan ato the many school kids who stayed up late for the occasion.

Many of them went to bed — eventually — reflecting that there is a silver lining to the so-called failure.

As teeth were brushed and Israel’s young space enthusiasts tucked in, they drifted off to picture themselves as heroic engineers who find a foolproof formula and land the first successful mission.

Of course, I am far more grown up and realistic. I went home to write a letter outlining why I should be given press accreditation to be blasted off aboard Israel’s first manned trip to the Moon.

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