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Why Israel's Lunar Mission Was a Success

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People watch a screen showing a picture taken by the Beresheet spacecraft of the moon surface as the craft approaches and before it crashed during the landing, in Netanya, April 11, 2019.
People watch a screen showing a picture taken by the Beresheet spacecraft of the moon surface as the craft approaches and before it crashed during the landing, in Netanya, April 11, 2019.Credit: Jack Guez/AFP
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

The failure of Israeli lunar spacecraft Beresheet to land safely on the moon and its crash in the final moments of its automated landing should not blunt the technological and engineering achievement of SpaceIL and the Israel Aerospace Industries, in their attempt at getting to the moon. The fact that a craft built at a cost of $100 million met most challenges of the journey and maneuvers along the way is extraordinary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arrived at Beresheet's control room at IAI headquarters in the central Israeli city of Yehud to observe the planned landing, ascribed these achievements to Israeli daring and creativity. And he is right. Israel has pockets of excellence that meet the quality of the world's leading technology and research centers.

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But at the same time, the planned landing was not exempt from the Israeli dissonance between progress and carelessness, excellence and conservatism, that feed and disrupt each other at the same time.

A few minutes before the final maneuver, in what seemed like a journalistic cliché, the lift for people with disabilities outside the control room broke down and one of the founders of SpaceIL had to be carried by guests to overcome the six steps leading to the control room to observe the landing.

An image taken by Israeli spacecraft Beresheet upon its landing on the moon, April 11, 2019.Credit: Space IL via Reuters

Academics, politicians and journalists can argue over the reasons for Israelis reaching the forefront of global technology. But it is clear that these achievements will fade away if the values of progress, excellence and research are not at the top of public priorities.

Netanyahu said before the landing maneuver that he was considering investing in an Israeli space program. To save time, we might remind the prime minister that a public committee headed by Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel (currently chairman of the Israeli Space Agency), published a report back in 2010 recommending raising public investment in space research to 300 million shekels ($84.2 million) a year. Nine years later, the budget has not reached even a third of this sum.

All told, Israel invests $2.50 per citizen per year in space research, compared to $65.5 per citizen per year in the United States. Despite this small investment, Israel's technological capabilities place it on the front lines of countries involved in space research. And increased investment can be expected to pay for itself quickly. The estimated size of the international space market today is $350 billion, and according to the latest estimates it should reach between one and three trillion dollars in 20 to 30 years.

Meanwhile, Israeli entrepreneurs are not waiting for government investment. Those involved with Beresheet, Hebrew for "Genesis," wanted it to be the first privately funded spacecraft to land on the moon. Despite the words "Am Yisrael Chai" (“the nation of Israel lives”) that were inscribed on the side of the craft, and attempts by politicians to take part in the achievement, it was private initiative that made Beresheet's journey to the moon historic.

Making it through liftoff, the extreme conditions of space, maneuvers to leave earth’s orbit, the longest route a manmade object has ever taken to the moon and the complex “trapping” of the moon’s orbit, SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries showed that it is possible to (almost) reach the moon at one tenth of the cost of previous journeys.

Members of SpaceIL and representatives from Israel Aerospace Industries do a selfie in front of a model of Beresheet spacecraft, near the control room, in Yahud, Israel, April 11, 2019.Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters

The reasons for the crash are still being studied, and may never be explained. Preliminary data from the SpaceIL and IAI engineering teams apparently show that a technical glitch in one of the components caused a chain reaction during which the main engine stopped working, meaning the craft could not slow down.

It overcame the glitch and restarted the main engine, but by that time it could not complete the landing as planned. The first problem apparently occurred at an altitude of about 14 kilometers above the moon's surface. When the spacecraft was 150 meters from the surface, which was when communication with it was lost, it reached a vertical speed of about 500 kilometers per hour before crashing on the moon's surface. Extensive tests are planned to better understand what happened.

It is possible that the decision by the builders of the craft to avoid redundancy – saving money by not building a steering system in case of a mishap – was what decided Beresheet's fate. The craft's components cannot be examined in conditions emulating the huge challenge of a moon landing, and the breakdown of just one component is enough to cause a crash.

But that same money-saving approach had proved itself with all the other challenges Beresheet faced on its way to making Israel the seventh country to have an object crash onto the moon. IAI, which holds the rights to most of the technology developed for the spacecraft, is already in discussions with European countries to sell technologies and build more moon landers. And after all, it's a nice dream for IAI to progress from focusing on building weapons to developing space technology.

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