Illustration: Julian Frost
Illustration: Julian Frost
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Inside Israel’s Crash-Landing on the Moon

All systems were go. Then the little craft that could went dark. What now for the future of privatized space conquest in the Middle East?

Armin Rosen
May 22, 2019
Illustration: Julian Frost
Illustration: Julian Frost

There is no footage of Beresheet’s April 11 collision into the Mare Serenitatis, the terminal point of Israel’s first attempt to land on the moon. The half-ton craft, which resembled a gold-foil-wrapped, monster-truck tire 2 meters in diameter perched atop four slender metal bird legs, is believed to have crashed into the moon’s surface at a vertical velocity of 140 meters per second (313 miles per hour), and a horizontal velocity of 950 meters per second (over 2,125 miles per hour, well above Mach 2). Beresheet met a much less peaceful fate than that of Beagle 2, the British-made craft which soft-landed on Mars in 2003, only to lose contact with Earth after two of its solar panels failed to deploy. An image of the crash site taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and released on May 15 shows a small dark gouge mark inside an oval of sandy-white ejecta—evidence of hard impact.

Trouble began at around 15 kilometers, when one of Beresheet’s two inertial measurement units started malfunctioning. It was unknown whether the craft could soft-land with only one of the sensors working. Within the space of about 30 seconds, a decision was taken to try to reset the unit from the ground, a defensible call under the circumstances. But that command set off a cascade of systems failures, culminating in a full reset of the craft and the unexpected shutdown of the lander’s engines. Contact was lost, and then regained—for a moment, the engines even flickered back to life, slowing the plunge to the lunar surface. The final reading came from an altitude of 149 meters, much too close to salvage the landing.

During a successful landing, Beresheet would have cut off thrusters 5 meters above the ground. At an April 11 watch event in the lobby outside the control room at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters in Yahud, near Ben Gurion airport, a video playing on a loop on a flat-screen TV included footage of a Beresheet drop-test. But even in the moon’s reduced gravity (1.6 meters per second squared, compared to 9.8 here on Earth), the 580-kilogram craft stood little chance of remaining in one piece, or even 100 pieces. At the event and before the landing attempt, Yariv Bash, an electrical and computer engineer and one of the three SpaceIL co-founders, mused, “If aliens came in 1 million years from now and found the Earth was all dust, there will still be something to tell our story.”

Now what will those aliens find? What happened to the panel carrying an image of an Israeli flag and the words Am Yisrael Chai, framed against the immanent lunar surface in a photo beamed back to Earth just minutes before the end? Where in the lunar dust did the Tanach printed on a disk the size of a quarter—each Hebrew letter as small as a microbe, and part of a time capsule with over 10 million pages of data—eventually settle? Weeks later, even after seeing a faraway image of the crash site, no one could be entirely sure.

In Yahud, no one was openly weeping, though. “Now, we need to party,” declared Kfir Damari, another SpaceIL co-founder, and he sounded like maybe he really meant it. Beresheet was now a distant ruin, but Israel’s moonshot emerged from a familiar wellspring of wild and irrational hope, which, in Beresheet’s case, gathered enough force to leave planet Earth behind.

Beresheet began with a Facebook post, Damari told me, back in January. In late 2010, Bash put out a call on the social network to see if anyone else wanted to help make a run at the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a $30 million award, announced in 2007, for the first nongovernmental entity to successfully land on the moon by the end of 2014, travel 500 meters, and transmit images from the surface. Bash had wanted to use a weather balloon to launch a homemade spacecraft, a hobby that was briefly the subject of its own YouTube sub-genre in the early 2010s; a friend told him about the XPRIZE, more or less daring him to build something bigger. But even at its inception, the moonshot wasn’t a joke: A mutual friend connected Bash to Yonatan Winetraub, an aerospace engineer with experience at both Israel Aerospace Industries and NASA’s Ames Research Center who is now a biophysics doctoral candidate at Stanford. The three of them met in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv, at a bar called Degronit. The XPRIZE entry deadline was just weeks away.

Still, the trio “started thinking about how we are going to build it,” Damari recalled. Everyone was in their late 20s—Damari is now 35, has two kids, and leads a cybersecurity startup. Damari is from Alfei Menashe, a town of 7,000 near Kfar Saba, and now lives in Tel Aviv. He had been in an intelligence unit in the army, and was finishing a computer engineering masters at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba when he saw Bash’s Facebook post.

Damari is a product of Israeli circumstances—someone whose skills and ambitions weren’t honed at MIT or Stanford, but in places within an hour or two of where he’d grown up. He began programming when he was 6—“I wrote my first virus at the age of 11,” he said. “It was a really stupid virus, but it worked.” Israel’s security, and perhaps its long-term survival, rests on an almost irrational level of trust in the young, and on their own irrational trust in themselves. “As a 20-year-old officer in the army, you’re given the kind of responsibility where usually the next time you will get it is when you are 45, because it’s not logical to give it to someone that young,” said Damari.

Israel is a small country, where the literal and figurative distances between yourself and the experts, donors, and political leaders needed to mount a lunar mission can be disorientingly short. A lunar landing must have felt like more than just bar talk, even in that first meeting. “It sounded like a small project—cool, we can do it,” Damari recalled. Thirty-three teams entered the Google Lunar XPRIZE, whose deadline was repeatedly pushed back. When the competition was called off in January of 2018, just five remained. SpaceIL is the only one of those five that has launched anything so far.

At the outset, the founders thought they were building a bottle-size spacecraft that could reach the moon by the end of 2012 at a total cost of $8 to $10 million—Damari described an object based on a “cubesat” microsatellite design with dimensions of approximately 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 30 centimeters. Before they could figure out how to build or launch such a thing, they needed $50,000 to enter the challenge, and they needed it fast. “They had three weeks to get $50,000, which is not trivial to get to guys who had one too many beers and big dreams,” recalled Danny Grossman, a former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot and strategic consultant who was one of the project’s first donors. At least the urgency simplified their pitch, Damari said. “We have 10 days to register or not to register, will you help us.”

SpaceIL’s founders had little real sense of what they were getting themselves into once they’d joined the competition. For starters, physics prohibit getting something as small as the SpaceIL team’s imagined Coke bottle spacecraft to the moon. Landing 1 kilogram on the moon requires a minimum of 3 to 4 kilograms of onboard fuel, and the fuel tank has to be propelled out of Earth orbit, as does the fuel itself. The smallest possible tank SpaceIL could find for a severely cost-constrained lunar mission weighed 7 kilograms on its own. Then the craft needs various complex pressurization systems that can precisely regulate the flow of fuel into the engines in a zero-gravity environment—in the end, the fuel apparatus accounted for 80% of Beresheet’s weight, and that was after they’d switched from hydrazine to a more efficient bipropellant system. Add in computers, communications equipment, landing legs, various payloads, and other critical systems while cutting most of the redundancies, and it turns out the smallest practical lunar lander weighs around 580 kilograms (1,280 lbs.), and has the bulk of a large washing machine.

At an early point, SpaceIL hit the limits of what an all-volunteer organization could do. Even basic aspects of spaceflight, like designing a craft that can withstand both the boiling heat and vacuum cold of the void, needs its own battery of specialists. Flying directly to the moon, as the Apollo missions did, requires far more fuel, and therefore a much larger spacecraft, that would be prohibitively expensive to launch—SpaceIL’s lander would have to travel in increasing elliptical orbits around the Earth over the course of several weeks, which itself takes a sizable ground crew, and the use of satellite dishes on nearly every continent.

“It’s not a project where three guys met in a garage and started to build a spacecraft,” Damari told me. “Maybe it started like this, but you cannot really build a spacecraft in a garage.” As Yonatan Winetraub later put it, “We started very small and made it bigger. The other way around doesn’t work.”

By 2015, the organization had a professional CEO. They contracted out construction of the craft to IAI, although SpaceIL was responsible for much of the overall systems engineering, the guidance systems, and various other subsystems. A Seattle-based consultancy called Spaceflight began working with SpaceIL in 2015 in order to organize a launch that could fit a mission as unusual as theirs, while launching on a date that wasn’t Shabbat or a Jewish holiday. SpaceIL signed a launch contract with SpaceX in 2015. Beresheet would reach space atop one of the company’s Falcon 9s, groundbreakingly inexpensive rockets with a reusable first stage.

In early 2019, there were 40 full-time employees at SpaceIL, alongside 40 IAI staff working on Beresheet. The mission also gained a scientific component, in the form of sensors built by the Rehovot-based Weizmann Institute of Science and UCLA that would measure the local magnetic field during and after the landing, as well as a reflector array that would help the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s lasers measure distance from the moon. Unlike the Earth, the moon does not have magnetic poles, and the exact origins and even the locations of its magnetism are hotly debated among scientists—a piece of a larger puzzle that could eventually shed light on the moon’s origins, as well as the early days and possible eventual fate of the solar system.

Damari and I met in mid-January, the day before Beresheet would be loaded onto a plane to the United States, in a coworking space on the 60th floor of the Azrieli Sarona Tower, the tallest building in Israel, the lower reaches of which are still under construction. From 750 feet up, Tel Aviv resembled wavy lines of eggshell-colored cubes bordering a rolling, gray winter sea. The lounge had a fancy espresso machine and buzzed with hoodie-clad startup employees in their mid-20s.

Damari, who wore glasses and a SpaceIL fleece, fit right into this scene of a typical workday in a developed country in 2019—this could have been a WeWork on 34th Street in New York, if it weren’t for the view. Descend 60 floors and you’d reach an equally startling vision of a normal, bourgeois Israel: Sarona Market, which is a more rambunctious version of its inspiration 7,000 miles away in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. SpaceIL embodies a similar tension. The moon mission was a chance for Israel to accomplish something of global significance outside the realm of geopolitics or security; to show that its ambitions weren’t so different from that of any other leading country, and that the Jewish state could be an especially impressive version of everywhere else. As Damari explained, the project was “about connecting everyone—everyone in Israel, everyone in the Jewish world—to a moment where we can unite and be happy together.”

At the same time, there was a distinctly Israeli character in how the project had come together. How long would it take me to score an interview with the head of NASA, Damari asked me? Maybe six months if I nagged enough, I said. The SpaceIL three got an audience with the head of the Israel Space Agency within two weeks.

When SpaceIL presented at an Israeli Space Week event in January of 2011, a few weeks after entering the XPRIZE, Morris Kahn, a then-80-year-old telecom and private equity entrepreneur and space enthusiast who occasionally goes diving with Buzz Aldrin, was in the audience. Damari remembers the three founders being approached by an older man, who asked how much they had raised. Fifty thousand dollars, they told him. Kahn immediately said he’d give $100,000, the first of an eventual $40 million he contributed. As for Aldrin, Damari has made “Israeli black coffee” for the former moonwalker, who single-handedly resolved a debate over whether the lunar dust would blow back toward the craft during the landing, potentially covering its cameras and sensors. “He just said no, no, the dust doesn’t come back, don’t worry, I know,” recalled Damari. “Not a lot of people can say that.”

The South African-born Kahn moved to Israel in the mid-1950s and is now worth around $1 billion. He single-handedly legitimized SpaceIL and provided the kind of money that vaulted things into the realm of the possible. “It became clear four or five years into the Google Lunar XPRIZE that we had ultimately hit up against a fundraising challenge,” said Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation. “The technology was getting easier—Falcon 9 didn’t exist when we launched the competition. Things were moving forward but ultimately it became a fundraising competition. The question was, who could raise enough capital to give it a good shot?”

The answer was Kahn, who brought along other big-ticket donors, including Sylvan Adams, the philanthropist and real estate developer responsible for bringing the opening stages of the 2018 Giro d’Italia bike race to Israel. “Morris is a low-key salesman,” Adams said. “He didn’t pressure me. It’s not his style.” Sheldon Adelson’s family foundation ended up giving over $16 million. This was perhaps another sign of Israeli normalcy: Like in America, space exploration had become the grandest possible canvas for the dreams and egos of a billionaire class that now owned the romance and promise of the beyond. The Israeli government would never have gone to the moon on its own, just as NASA wouldn’t have invented something like the Falcon 9 as quickly or efficiently as SpaceX did. Yet in both instances, the future turned out to be a gift from a small cadre of wealthy visionaries, a global tendency that’s observable in areas far beyond rocket science, for better and worse.

One struggled to be too cynical about SpaceIL—Jewish ethnic solidarity was a leg up that no other team had, an outgrowth of millennia of anxieties. After all, the fate of the Jewish people on this planet has, until recently, been largely out of their own hands. The lunar mission would be a monument to a miraculous triumph over centuries of existential danger. Damari’s grandfather was sent to a Nazi work camp in Tunisia during WWII, escaped from North Africa during the war, and then fought for the Edsel during Israel’s War of Independence. He was there when Damari was commissioned as an IDF officer, proud that his grandson was continuing the family’s contributions to Jewish survival and renewal. The idea of the citizens of a Jewish state attempting a moon landing would have contained many levels of science fiction-like absurdity until quite recently. “Even if something wrong will happen in the landing we’ll still feel that we’ve done something amazing,” Damari said in January.

Until the evening of Feb. 21, roughly 30 minutes after the Falcon 9’s liftoff from launchpad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, it was unknown whether Beresheet could survive the rigors of space travel. “Most of this hardware’s never been flown in space before, most of it doesn’t have redundancies—these are two things that are not normal for spacecraft,” explained Opher Doron, the general manager of IAI’s space division. “Here we’ve got almost everything single, and almost everything with no heritage.”

It was not a given that the Falcon 9 would take off successfully, either. Two of the SpaceX workhorse’s previous 67 missions ended in failure and the loss of all payloads (although one of the two failures occurred during a static test and not during liftoff). It was not a given that Beresheet would deploy correctly, or that it would climb to its correct apogee, or that all of its systems would be in working order once it arrived in outer space. One space industry hand likened any launch to “a million consecutive miracles,” and this one was more of an adventure than usual.

The Falcon 9 was carrying two payloads in addition to Beresheet: a telecommunications satellite for a company from Indonesia (a country that does not have official diplomatic relations with Israel), and a small satellite involved in classified work monitoring geostationary orbit for the U.S. Air Force. The various spacecraft would be aiming for dramatically different apogees after launch: nearly 70,000 kilometers for Beresheet compared to roughly 50,000 for the other payloads. This would be “the first [Geostationary Transfer Orbit] ride-share,” said Curt Blake, chief executive of Spaceflight’s flight services group—in other words, it would be the highest-ever multi-payload commercial launch.

The night before the launch, Sylvan Adams wasn’t concerned. In his view, the mission’s biggest risks were on the back end. “Imagine we land on some unlandable surface or at an angle and the whole thing just crashes and we don’t get any pictures,” he said. “The whole deal for us is the pictures.”

We met for an early evening drink in the glass-vaulted lobby of the Orlando World Center Marriott, an exhausting Floridian extravaganza of a mega-resort next to Disney World. The 59-year-old Adams is silver-haired with the compact build of a cycling obsessive: Months later, and less than a week after the Beresheet landing, I ran into him on the promenade in Tel Aviv in full lycra, filming a promo for the Israel Cycling Academy, the country’s first pro team. He is Canadian-born, and had moved to Israel a couple years earlier. In Florida, he was a whirlwind of enthusiasm, free of any haughtiness and pretension. Only by Googling him after meeting for the first time did I learn he has a net worth pushing $1.5 billion. “My business card reads, ‘Self-Appointed Ambassador at Large for the State of Israel,’” he said. “That’s what I am. That’s what I do.”

Adams described himself as one of the mission’s “principals”—someone who had donated enough to SpaceIL to have his foundation’s logo on the blue flight jackets that Adams; Winetraub; Yigal Harel, the head of SpaceIL’s spacecraft program; and Boaz Levy, the executive vice president of IAI’s systems, missiles, and space group, wore at the press conference later in the evening. SpaceIL, Adams told me, was “yet another antidote to BDS and to all of the haters who don’t realize what Israel is, to all the people who have never been to Israel, never seen what goes on in Israel—that Israel is a normal but exemplary country.”

On the morning of the launch, rain and sunshine alternated in half-hour shifts, with the flat green horizon meeting a combat of calming blues and threatening grays. At midday, the clouds had parted, and from the causeway into Port Canaveral the heavens seemed to beam upon the awesome gray monolith of the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building, a midcentury American equivalent of the Great Pyramid, monstrously vast and radiating a fearsome cosmic power—every single Apollo rocket and space shuttle assembly have been wheeled out from its 456-foot doors. At mid-afternoon, the skies were postcard-clear. From Cocoa Beach, south of Kennedy, the twin lightning towers of a near-distant launchpad lorded over the ocean haze, while the seashore was a crush of leathery out-of-towners, future or recent cruise passengers, and defeated-looking families bearing evidence of having visited nearby Disney properties.

Like Rome or Jerusalem, Kennedy has an incomprehensible amount of history per square inch, much of which can only be guessed at. The assembled media watched from the Integrate-Transfer-Launch causeway, a now-vestigial land bridge built in the early 1960s as part of the Titan III program. Slightly to the south was the mysteriously soft-lit Launch Complex 37, the start for a number of Apollo-related missions in the ’60s.

Now, many of those sites are being repurposed for what is being sold as a coming golden age of privatized space travel, in which billionaires rather than governments will be the interplanetary impresarios. Lunar exploration startup Moon Express has set up shop at the old Delta II launch pads—in late 2014, it became the first private company to conduct a test flight of a lunar lander. Moon Express is vying for contracts with NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, and the company hopes to land on the moon as soon as 2020. The secretive Blue Origin, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, revealed a mock-up of a crewed lunar lander on May 9, operates out of an impressive and mostly windowless building conspicuously across the street from the Kennedy Space Center visitors’ complex. The first manned launch from Kennedy since the final flight of the space shuttle in 2011 will almost certainly take place aboard either a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule or the Starliner, the result of a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture. The Dragon was shooting for a midsummer trip to the International Space Station until an “anomaly” during an April 21 ground test apparently destroyed one of the capsules and unleashed an ominous plume of dark red smoke visible from Cocoa Beach.

SpaceIL is a nonprofit, but this crowded field explains why it received so much interest from Israeli decision-makers. Israel is already a notable space nation. Because many of the countries to its immediate east do not recognize Israel’s right to exist and might interpret a launch (or crash landing) as an act of war, it is the only country that sends up rockets against the rotation of the Earth, something it has done from Palmachim Airbase, near Rehovot, using the fully indigenous Shavit rocket. (Israel is one of only 11 countries with its own orbital launch capability—the only other one in the Middle East is Iran.) Reaching space without a helpful natural push into orbit requires either larger-than-usual rockets or smaller-than-usual satellites. Israel has mastered the construction of compact orbital spacecraft, and IAI, which is a government-owned corporation, has an unblemished record of success with satellites that reach space. But a lunar mission would vault the Jewish state into an entirely different strata of space countries, joining the very few that can design, build, fly, and land spacecraft beyond Earth orbit. On Jan. 29, IAI signed a teaming agreement with the German company OHB System that would make a Beresheet-type design a candidate for a future European Space Agency lunar mission.

Two and a half miles across the lagoon stood the spot-lit Falcon 9, a slim, white cylinder with faint black scorch marks from this particular rocket’s other two trips into the high atmosphere. The cylinder vented a wide jet of white steam from its upper third, the result of water vapor being released so that more liquid oxygen could be loaded. An unmanned weather balloon had departed from nearby Patrick Air Force Base a few minutes earlier and was reporting favorable atmospheric conditions; ships had been alerted to keep their distance from the Cape, and the launch site had been evacuated of nearly all personnel hours earlier. The lack of human activity was a strange thing to comprehend—over 200 miles offshore a drone barge sat in 12-foot swells, awaiting the reusable first-stage core of the Falcon 9.

As it turned out, we were much closer to the rocket than was the control room, which is located in a nondescript single-story building near the Air Force base entrance, but whose audio launch enthusiasts could access through a call-in line. There, almost nothing was being discussed, with sentences like “spacecraft is on internal power” bracketed with long silences. This was a good sign, someone who’d photographed some triple-digit number of launches informed me: The less they’re talking, the less things are going wrong.

At ignition, three seconds before liftoff, the darkness exploded into an orange that was nearly blinding but not sun-like. A rocket dawn is a brief and brilliant dome of color against an oceanic black: The launch pad and flame trench are a bright explosive furnace, blazing the lagoon into a yellow softer than daylight. Clouds of exhaust gather at the rocket’s base; there’s a volcano of fire and vapor and gas, and thick white smoke billowing higher than the lightning towers and expanding horizontally through the wide concrete trenches beneath the launch pad. An entire world of destructive power is summoned before the rocket has even left the ground. By the time sound catches up with mortal vision the rocket has already cleared the launch pad. The cars on the causeway rattle, the body absorbs a soft shock and a light suction on the chest and eardrums as the air compresses. It lasts a few seconds, a single wave that arrives and dissipates, and that can be heard before and after it hits.

During a night launch the rocket itself is invisible while in flight, and it’s only possible to see the brilliant flare of its engines. For a moment the light seems to hang in midair—a scorching rectangle, hypnotically bright, so strong that for a moment it looks like it’s actually intensifying and doubling back to Earth. The rocket feels closer even as it’s plunging farther into space. Only after two minutes in the air does the torch begin to arc or fade. The spectators gasped at a shooting star, and when my eyes refocused on the rocket its light was already flickering in and out of view. “First stage separation!” someone yelled.

The small point of light split into two points of light, followed by a firefly-orange eruption on the far horizon. The light was 400 km out to sea, the distance between Washington and New York, but it was possible to see a sustained and slowing descent, deliberate and stable, set beside the quarter-globe of an enormous dark yellow moonrise. The light, which belonged to the thrusters of the descending Falcon 9 core, eventually disappeared over the horizon. The rocket itself struck its landing on the drone barge, and would spend the next few days at sea on its way back to Port Canaveral.

The whole show lasted around five minutes, but a spectator could trace the rocket’s entire journey: the trajectory into a high orbit, the stage separations, the descent to Earth. There had been cheering along the causeway, and cheering in control rooms on two continents. Everything worked; every element cooperated. For a few moments, the cosmic void was closer and bigger, the sky no longer a passive backdrop, but a place to which one can go. Back down on Earth, screens in the mission operations center in Yahud began turning green as telemetry came in.

There was one problem, though, potentially manageable, but also possibly significant: Beresheet’s star tracker was partially blinded, for reasons that remain unexplained. A star tracker is a navigational tool that compares its view of the stars to a stellar map, thus allowing mission controllers to discern the direction the craft is facing. During close passes with Earth—which is when many of the mission’s most important maneuvers took place—the damaged star tracker could be overwhelmed by both the sun and the light emitted by the planet below.

“We’ve had to maneuver the spacecraft in such a way that at least one of the star trackers doesn’t see the sun anywhere near it, or the Earth. And that is quite a complex maneuver,” said IAI’s Doron. “The complexity is exacerbated by the fact that we’re very close to Earth so our communication range is very limited. And because of our inclination, we are in the Southern Hemisphere in perigee, and the Southern Hemisphere is mostly ocean where we don’t have communication because there are no antennas there. So we’re doing these maneuvers in the dark.”

And there were other issues, also surmountable. The craft’s computer had to be reset after it traveled through the Van Allen belts, the strips of cosmic radiation surrounding the Earth. One of the early maneuvers failed as a partial result of the computer issue, although subsequent successful maneuvers got Beresheet back on track. Even locating the craft sometimes proved difficult. The mission had encountered a harsh reality of space exploration: As Doron put it, “You’re trying to figure out how something is acting when it’s far away and you can’t actually reach it, and reading tons of data from which you try to surmise what’s working well and what isn’t working and why it’s doing that. It’s always the case with spacecraft: You can’t take a look at it … you’re deducing things from telemetry.”

So far, the challenges had been met. Beresheet could fly in space. In some respects, particularly the performance of the communications system, it was working even better than its builders had expected. There were “a lot of frowns and a lot of smiles” in the ops center, Doron said. “And in that respect it’s a typical space mission.”

For the six weeks after the launch, Beresheet traveled in an elliptical spiral of increasing size, boosting to an apogee of 130,000 kilometers, then 270,000, then to 400,000, the distances increased through a series of engine burns performed as the craft was slingshot around the Earth at perigees as close as 450 kilometers. In cycles of roughly 20 hours at first, which eventually grew to be as long as a week, Beresheet made tantalizingly close passes at the Earth, in order to fling itself several hundred thousand kilometers farther into the abyss.

On April 3, Beresheet’s long elliptical orbit intersected with that of the moon, and the craft was decelerated in order to “capture” the lunar gravitational pull. At that point, it entered into an elliptical lunar orbit at an apogee of around 10,000 kilometers, with landing procedures set to begin with the apogee reduced to just 200 kilometers on April 11, at a time in the two-week lunar day when the craft would be landing in neither darkness nor meltdown-inducing heat.

None of this was easy. While in Earth orbit, maneuvers would take days to prepare, and they were followed by days of analysis. Maneuvers were tested and simulated, including in a hybrid lab with actual spacecraft hardware. Instructions were transmitted to the craft hours ahead of time, and the perigee maneuvers, which were meant to raise the apogee by taking advantage of the Earth’s gravitational pull, were often performed when Beresheet flew in communication dead zones. While there had been exhaustive rehearsals and preparations for the mission, nothing like this had ever been done in Israel before. As Eran Schmidt, the head of SpaceIL’s ground segment, explained, it took him six months of searching just to find the seven satellite dishes spread across Europe, South America, Africa, and the Pacific that would be needed for this kind of mission.

The April 3 lunar capture was a “critical maneuver”: If the mission operations center had miscalculated the craft’s location, or had ordered it to accelerate at insufficient velocity, Beresheet would miss a window of a few hundred kilometers and hurl into the vastness of the inner solar system, never to return. A less catastrophic failure was theoretically correctable in one lunar month, when Beresheet’s orbit would again intersect with the moon’s—although by that point the craft would likely be out of fuel.

The capture went off without a hitch. SpaceIL had made it to lunar orbit.

During the final 72 hours, team members barely left Building 100 on IAI’s campus, some of them sleeping in a meeting room near the mission operations center. Schmidt calculated he got two hours of sleep every night during the final sprint. There was doubt within the mission as to whether the spacecraft would actually be in position to land within its 500- by 100-meter target zone, but by the morning of April 11, Beresheet was exactly where it needed to be.

At 6 a.m. local time, Schmidt arrived in the mission operations center and asked his team if they’d finished their orbital determination. “They were smiling. We understood that we are starting from a good, good point.”

Something on the outer brink of possibility had been achieved. An Israeli craft was orbiting the moon at an altitude of between 200 and 15 kilometers in remarkable working order, with enough fuel onboard for a soft landing.

The descent was always going to be the hard part. Even the superpowers that have landed on extraplanetary bodies get it wrong. Aside from the ill-fated Beagle 2, there was the U.S.’ lost Mars Polar Lander in 1999, which cut off its engines too early into its approach; and the European Space Agency’s doomed Schiaparelli Mars lander, which was looking good until the final 60 seconds of its arrival on the Red Planet in 2016. The moon is perhaps an even harsher environment for a landing spacecraft than Mars, Moon Express CEO Bob Richards explained—there’s no atmosphere that can be used to create drag to slow the spacecraft, and parachutes are useless. “When you’re standing on the moon you are standing in space. You just happen to have a planetary surface with some gravity under you, but you’re in space,” Richards said. The only way to decelerate is by firing rocket engines until you’re a safe distance from the ground.

A landing is so fraught with inherent risk that the usual right-wrong criteria does the whole enterprise a disservice—you can believe you’ve gotten everything right and still fail, for reasons that even the best engineers can’t always anticipate. In January, Damari likened the landing to “putting a string through a needle from the sixth floor,” which would be difficult to do on command even after inordinate amounts of practice. Math, physics, and engineering are hardly a realm of absolute certainty, least of all during a complicated maneuver in the vacuum of space. Because of communications delays, a spacecraft can’t be joystick-controlled to the surface of whatever it is you’re landing on from a quarter of a million miles away. By the time NASA learned that the Insight lander had started its descent in November of 2018, for example, the probe had already made it safely to the surface of Mars.

The moon is much closer than Mars and the comms delay much shorter, but the distance is still too vast, and landing procedure too complex, to be handled through real-time human control. After angling its thrusters moonward, Beresheet would reach a “point of no return” at 25 kilometers where it would evaluate whether to begin its final approach. The ensuing maneuver would burn off almost the remainder of its fuel load, leaving the craft unable to abort to orbit in the event of an unpleasant surprise. Success would also hinge on components that had never actually been tested in space before, most notably a laser-based system for determining distance from the surface. “If the laser gets data, that’s a big, big milestone,” Winetraub said in Yahud. “That jumps our chances of landing dramatically.”

On the one hand, the landing was the culmination of years of careful, painstaking groundwork—those 10 minutes had been planned, rehearsed, and simulated countless times over the years. But the landing was entirely automated: Once it began, the control room could mostly only monitor the craft’s progress and shut down or restart critical systems; meanwhile, any combination of factors, some of them unknowable, would determine whether the descent was a success or not.

It was with this knowledge—mostly suppressed, until the moment things started going wrong—that the founders, funders, and political leaders gathered in Building 100 in Yahud the night of April 11. There was an open bar, fancy pretzels, a handful of cabinet ministers. U.S. Ambassador David Friedman was there. The moment elicited an impromptu speech from the just-reelected Benjamin Netanyahu, who was moved almost to tears. In an auditorium looking into the control room, Harel Locker, IAI’s board chairman, held up a copy of a drawing by an Auschwitz inmate that Ilan Ramon, the only Israeli astronaut, had taken with him on his fatal trip aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.

In the control room and lobby at Building 100, where large projection screens showed a graphic readout of the craft’s engines and basic telemetry, it was possible to glimpse Israel as so many Jews want to imagine it: The small country of big dreams, as a sign in the control room put it; a nation whose real aspirations had little to do with gobbling up land or inflicting its will on others, a place whose true purpose was to prove what oppressed and scattered peoples could do once they seized control of their own fate.

In reality, of course, nothing about the Jewish or Israeli national character hinged on whether Beresheet soft-landed, and a failed landing wasn’t necessarily a metaphor for anything, just as a successful one wouldn’t have been. But when the image of the Israeli flag and the words Am Yisrael Chai against the lunar surface was beamed in from an altitude of 22 kilometers—the auditorium and lobby erupted.

Forty-five seconds later came the first bad news from the control room: “IMU shtayim, not OK.” Sometime after that came the command to try rebooting the troublesome inertial measurement unit. On-screen the altitude froze at 13.3 kilometers, with the measurement laser working but the engines shut off. Faces turned grim, and there were snippets of the Hebrew words one didn’t really want to hear that night: “ze lo nachonein lanu telemetry … baiya”—that’s incorrect … problem.

Telemetry came back at 10 kilometers, momentary good news that finally broke a minute of dead silence. But Beresheet was dropping fast, the engines weren’t firing and the vertical velocity had more than quadrupled in the space of 90 seconds, from 25 to over 105 kilometers per second. “La’asot reset,” came the instruction, an eternal two and a half minutes after the photo was sent back to Earth, back when everything was going perfectly.

The main engine returned—in one final achievement, the mission had successfully regained control of the spacecraft after a rapid series of system failures. There were tepid, half-confused cheers through Building 100, none of them from the control room. Communications were lost—of course the engines had come back too late. It quickly dawned on everyone that the spacecraft wasn’t communicating because there wasn’t a spacecraft anymore.

With the screen finally frozen on 149 meters and a vertical velocity of 134 meters per second, the moment called for Israeli bluntness. “We had a failure in the spacecraft. We unfortunately were not able to land successfully,” Opher Doron announced. “We are the seventh country to orbit the moon, and the fourth to reach the moon’s surface. It’s a tremendous achievement up to now.”

(Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)
(Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Moments after the failure was announced, Netanyahu was already half-joking with Kahn about a Beresheet 2, an appropriately informal-but-maybe-totally-serious—which is to say, Israeli—end to the proceedings. “We made a tremendous effort. … We chose to dream, we chose to do, and we were not afraid,” said Kahn at the post-landing press conference, where it became clear that SpaceIL’s founders were experiencing something that very few people were likely to understand. Where in the existentially vexing chasm between success and failure had the mission actually landed?

“It’s kind of a successful crash,” said Chris Gebhardt, the assistant managing editor of NASA Spaceflight. “Even though it didn’t successfully land, they got it there. Not exactly as they wanted, but they were also able to demonstrate really fast thinking and problem-solving to get that engine reignited even though it was too late at that point to soft-land. … They’re still the first private company to get something to the surface on their own.” As a proof of concept, the mission did what it needed to do.

It also turned out that maybe the Beresheet landing wasn’t a total loss. Oded Aharonson, the planetary scientist who oversaw the mission’s magnetic field experiments, says that sensors had in fact collected potentially useful data during the landing, which the Weizmann Institute’s scientists are currently in the process of analyzing. Less than two days after the landing attempt, Morris Kahn announced that he was committing more of his fortune to Beresheet 2, and in early May, Schmidt was already hard at work planning the new mission’s rollout. He thinks the next mission might prove easier to fund, now that potential donors know they won’t be betting on a miracle.

“Now, I feel that we did get to the moon,” Damari told me in Yahud, a half-hour after the crash, when some of the shock had worn off. “We are on the moon. We don’t have the pictures we wanted, or all the scientific information that we wanted. But we got there.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.