New Moon

As I wrote about a while back, 2019 is a big year for the moon with a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11, China’s landing a probe on the farside and now the launch of Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft. If all goes according to plan, the company SpaceIL will send an unmanned lander into orbit on a SpaceX rocket tonight around 8:45 PM.

After a few weeks of increasingly larger earth orbits, the spacecraft with intercept the moon and be captured by its gravity, landing April 11, about a week before Passover. It would make Israel the fourth country, after the U.S., Russia, and China, to land on the moon, and the first time that a private company, not a national government, achieved that goal.

The only way SpaceIL could make such a daring landing is by cutting costs way down to “only” $100 million. By contrast, NASA’s Surveyor program, which sent 7 unmanned vehicles to the moon in the 1960’s, cost the equivalent of $3.4 billion in today’s dollars. The engineers saved money by making Beresheet small and eliminating all redundant systems. If any component fails, the mission is in jeopardy.

I am excited about many aspects of Beresheet, except its name, which was chosen through an online poll. Sometimes there isn’t much wisdom in the crowd. The name makes sense, since this is Israel’s first venture beyond earth orbit, and beresheet, the first word in the Torah, means “in the beginning”. But the name just doesn’t have the romance of other missions. I would have preferred something more imaginative and connected to the moon or Jewish history.

Regardless of the name, I hope Beresheet succeeds. It has the potential to inspire young Israelis and Jews around the world to take space exploration in new directions. Israeli ingenuity has created many technological innovations, and this could be one more major accomplishment, showing the world that companies and private donors can achieve what in the past was the reserve of governments.

Beresheet will conduct an experiment on the moon’s magnetic field and take pictures of the surface, but its real mission is as a proof of concept and to give Israeli technicians the experience of landing on the moon, which they can use in the future. It will also carry a time capsule with copies of the Bible, a Holocaust survivor’s story, and other texts in Jewish and Israeli literature.

How amazing will it be to see the Israeli flag and Hebrew on the moon! The Jews are often referred to as the wandering people – we have lived all over the earth, and now, if all goes according to plan, our reach will extend even to another heavenly body. Perhaps in a way it will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Beresheet, Genesis (15:5): “He took him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He added, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”

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