Beautiful Failure

The last few weeks I have been preoccupied with Israel’s attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon, becoming the fourth country, and first commercial operation, to do so. Everything went smoothly from launch to Earth orbit to lunar capture and orbit, but unfortunately the small probe called Beresheet couldn’t quite stick the landing. While it did reach the moon, the spacecraft crashed and lost communication with Earth.

I watched the live stream of the landing on YouTube, excited to witness the historic moment. The newly reelected Prime Minister was at mission control in the city of Yehud, near Tel Aviv, while the President of Israel was at his residence in Jerusalem watching with a group of children. Everything seemed to go well until the end when the spacecraft’s signal was lost. Finally, one of the controllers announced that they were on the moon, but not in the condition they wanted.

So how do you characterize a mission like Beresheet? Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to return to the moon in the future, as a complete success this time. President Reuven Rivlin tried to console the children by focusing on the positive: Israel became the 7th country to orbit the moon, took some amazing pictures, and Beresheet hopefully has inspired the next phase of Israeli space exploration.

Was the mission a success or a failure? Perhaps we shouldn’t think about it in such binary terms. The astronomer Phil Plait argues that “making mistakes is not only inevitable, but critical to the scientific process.” He writes that “[w]e make mistakes, we learn from them, we build on what we’ve learned, and in this way progress is made. Not doing that is what transforms a mistake into failure.”

One of the most remarkable, but perhaps overlooked, aspects of the Beresheet mission was the final livestream itself. Some countries would have kept the mission under wraps until it was complete so that if it was successful, there could be a triumphant announcement. If the goals were not met then no one would know.

Transparency and openness are also hallmarks of good science. It’s hard to do groundbreaking work in a vacuum (pun intended); you need cooperation with others, another outstanding feature of the Beresheet mission. NASA helped with communications and also provided a Laser Retroreflector Array on the spacecraft which can be used to precisely measure Beresheet’s location. Since the instrument does not need power to operate, it’s possible NASA will still be able to use it to locate the probe if it survived the crash. Who knows, maybe some science will be achieved from the mission after all.

I once saw a sign at a preschool that read “Mistakes are good because they help us grow”. It’s a philosophy that is important for science, but for life as well. It is also the essence of the Jewish concept of teshuvah, return. Whenever I make an error, I am always consoled by the learning opportunity it affords me. I know that I can do better in the future, that I will have another chance, and that makes all the difference.

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