TEL AVIV — Israel is aiming to become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon with the scheduled launch Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., of Beresheet, the first homegrown Israeli spaceship.
At stake are not only $100 million of investment and eight years of hard work, says the team of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs involved in the venture, but also possibly the future of independent privatized space travel.
Beresheet, named for the Hebrew word for Genesis, will be the smallest and least expensive spacecraft ever to attempt the journey from Earth to the moon, say those behind the project. Measuring only 1.5 meters in height and two meters in diameter, the vessel is aiming to make a lunar landing on April 11.
Previous moon landings — including the first by the former Soviet Union in 1966, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 and China in 2013 — were all government-sponsored endeavors. This initiative, spearheaded by Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, is being funded mainly by Jewish donors and foundations from around the world.
SpaceIL’s chief executive, Ido Anteby, said that as long as there are no last-minute hiccups on Thursday night — the launch has already been postponed at least once — Beresheet will leave the Earth’s atmosphere by hitching a ride on a Falcon 9 commercial rocket belonging to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Once the spaceship disengages from the Falcon 9 rocket, the craft will travel a roundabout route to the moon, covering a total distance of about 4 million miles, orbiting both the Earth and the moon several times. As it reaches the moon’s orbit, Beresheet will reduce its speed, with the goal of being picked up by the moon’s gravity.
There are still challenges before it reaches a lunar landing and puts Israel on the space industry’s map. Israelis have already experienced their share of disappointment and tragedy when it comes to space travel. Israel’s only astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was among the seven-member crew of the space shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003.
Morris Kahn, SpaceIL’s president and its largest investor, said Monday he hoped the initiative, as the first commercial, nongovernment flight to the moon, would contribute significantly to future space exploration.
He also said he was “gifting” the project to Israel and declared it a national project. “Not only every Israeli, but also every Jew will remember where he was when the Israeli spacecraft landed on the moon,” said Kahn, a South African-born Israeli billionaire.
If all goes according to plan, future visitors to the moon will also have a reminder of Israel’s inaugural space flight because the craft, which is making a one-way journey, is carrying capsules filled with Israeli national symbols, Jewish cultural items, and digital files detailing how this project came about. It is also carrying a tiny nanotech version of the Bible.
As part of its mission, Beresheet will engage in scientific research for Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, measuring the moon’s magnetic fields with specially installed computers and cameras, said SpaceIL’s Anteby.
The seeds of the Beresheet initiative started to sprout in 2010, when three young Israeli entrepreneurs signed up to compete for the now defunct Google Lunar X Prize. Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yehonatan Weintraub hoped to win the $20 million prize by landing an Israeli-built unmanned spaceship on the moon — and to turn Israeli schoolchildren on to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Though the three Israelis did not win the prize — no one did — they went on to create SpaceIL. Since then, the project not only gained financial backing from private investors but also support from Israeli government agencies such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the Israel Space Agency. It was these connections that last summer helped facilitate agreements with NASA and Musk’s SpaceX.
Opher Doron, IAI’s general manager, said a goal of this undertaking is to inspire a generation of children to study science and technology.
“We want to make them feel that they can achieve anything,” he said.