KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — Nearly a decade after three Israeli engineers walked into a bar in Tel-Aviv and concocted a plan to build a lunar lander, they watched their creation barrel toward the sky on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Thursday evening.
Destination: The moon.
The lander, Beresheet — Hebrew for “in the beginning,” — joined two more satellites on the SpaceX launch Thursday, which took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 40 at 8:45 p.m.
As the rocket ignited, lighting up a clear night on the Cape, a shooting star crossed the sky. Minutes later, with the the moon rising in the horizon, SpaceX’s booster landed on its drone ship off the coast, Of Course I Still Love You.
The launch set in motion a historic mission for Israel. If Beresheet arrives on the lunar surface as planned on April 11, Israel will become only the fourth nation to achieve the feat, after the United States, Russia and China.
It would be a major win for a nation that’s not among the superpowers that typically dominate in space, said Yiral Harel, head of SpaceIL’s spacecraft program, at a news conference in Orlando Wednesday night.
“Israel is a very small country. It’s smaller than New Jersey,” Harel said, “and we are shooting to the moon.”
SpaceIL, the nonprofit company founded by those three engineers, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub, has been officially working on its lander since 2011 in partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries. The company was a frontrunner for the Google Lunar X Prize, a moon race that would award $20 million to the first company that landed a private spacecraft on the moon. The competition was shuttered in 2018 without a winner.
But SpaceIL kept working on its lander, with help from philanthropists small and large. Philanthropist and businessman Morris Kahn, SpaceIL’s president, contributed $40 million in financing to the project and Dr. Miriam Adelson, an Israeli-American doctor and philanthropist, and her husband, casino magnate and investor Sheldon Adelson, gave $24 million.
“All the way to kids, who ran after us after giving a talk and said, ‘You know what? I want to give my Hanukkah allowance to you all because I want to be part of the mission to go to the moon,’” said Winetraub, one of SpaceIL’s cofounders.
Inspiring children and the next generation of leaders in the science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields has long been a part of the SpaceIL mission.
“We thought we [could] convince kids to pursue careers in science and engineering, and in Israel that’s a big problem because kids diverge from that… kids want to be celebrities, they want to be rock stars,” Winetraub said. “One thing we are really proud of is that in Israel we met more than a million kids.”
SpaceIL may also inspire other countries and companies. Its model is low-cost — $100 million for the lander and the ride on the Falcon 9 — and small. Beresheet at its full size, with its landing legs extended, is only about 7.5 feet in diameter.
The lander headed to space along with a telecommunications satellite and a smaller Air Force satellite Thursday, all part of a ride-share agreement brokered by mission management company Spaceflight.
The Indonesian Nusantara Satu satellite built by Palo Alto, California-based SSL will offer coverage for the South East Asia region. The U.S. Air Force Research Lab’s S5 satellite will also go to geosynchronous transfer orbit with a mission to test space situational awareness technologies.
A complex mission
Three payloads heading in two different directions made Thursday’s launch a particularly challenging one.
Beresheet disengaged from the rocket when it was about 37,000 miles from the Earth’s surface, and began the process of orbiting the Earth in larger ellipticals. When it’s close enough to be picked up by the moon’s gravity, the craft will ignite its engines and reduce its speed to land on the lunar surface.
The full trip, up through Beresheet’s 20-minute descent onto the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, will take about two months with a landing planned for April 11. There, it will take photos of the surface and measure the area’s magnetic field.
Beresheet will have a gift for the moon too: A time capsule in the form of three disks containing Israeli artifacts such as its Proclamation of Independence, national songs and drawings by Israeli children.
And on the craft, along with the Israeli flag, said Sylvan Adams, a SpaceIL donor and Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist, will be an inscription that reads, “Am Yisrael chai,” Hebrew for “The Jewish nation lives,” or “the people of Israel live.”
“This ‘Am Yisrael chai’ inscription that will land on the moon and stay on the moon in perpetuity,” he said, “is a symbol of the creativity and innovation of all of the Jewish people.”