AFTER Israel’s spacecraft crashed while attempting to land on the surface of the moon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged: “We’ll try again.”
“If at first you don’t succeed, try again,” the disappointed premier said as he watched the tragedy unfold from a control room at Yehud, near Tel Aviv.
The spacecraft — named Beresheet, meaning “in the beginning” — lost power in its main engine after sending a selfie from 14 miles above the surface of the moon.
Then it went into a freefall towards the surface.
The main engine reignited several miles above the surface before losing communication with SpaceIL’s control room minutes before the spacecraft was due to complete its historic task and land with an Israeli flag on the northern section of a lava plain on the moon’s Sea of Serenity, chosen largely because it is flat with few craters.
The devastated staff in the control room patriotically broke into the national anthem, Hatikva, once they had got over their initial shock.
The hoped-for moon landing attracted enormous interest. Millions of viewers from all over the world tuned in to a live broadcast from the control room on YouTube.
And 200 children and parents gathered at president’s Reuven Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem to watch the landing.
Although it didn’t complete its mission, four-legged Beresheet — developed by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries —helped Israel become the seventh country to have a spacecraft orbiting the moon.
Rivlin tried to hide his disappointment. “We should congratulate ourselves on what we have achieved,” he said. “We don’t have to be disappointed.”
With fragments of the spacecraft on the lunar surface, he added: “We didn’t land exactly like we wanted, but we landed. We are on the moon!”
Billionaire Morris Kahn, the major funder of the SpaceIL project, said afterwards: “Well, we didn’t make it, but we definitely tried.
“I think the achievement of the attempt is really tremendous.”
The craft — the size of a compact car — weighed about 1,300 lbs at launch, most of which was fuel.
It took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on February 21 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Beresheet used the gravity of the earth and then the moon to make its way to the lunar surface, travelling more than 3.4 million miles in its orbits around the earth and another million around the moon.
And for 48 days, the spacecraft’s ground crew watched, monitored and executed every manoeuvre from the control room.
On the wall of the control centre, overlooking the scientists behind the project, a plaque read: “The people of Israel live. A small country, big dreams”, summing up the spirit of the endeavour.
The spacecraft was designed to photograph its landing site and snap a selfie. Its key scientific mission, however, was to measure the moon’s magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science.
Apart from the Israel flag on board were a Bible and a time capsule containing hundreds of digital files, cultural items and materials collected by the crew and the public.
The spacecraft’s lunar landing time was listed on the electronic arrivals timetable board at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport alongside other flights.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara entered the control room moments before the scheduled landing and greeted the scientists and technicians before taking their seats in the front row of the viewing room.
The craft had already performed its final pre-landing manoeuvre, firing its engines for 32 seconds to bring it within 10 miles of the lunar surface.
Tensions were high as communications were lost before Opher Doron, the general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries' space division, announced there had been a failure in Beresheet.
“We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully,” he said.
As Mr Doron announced that the engine had cut out, groans filled the room.
“We are resetting the spacecraft to try to enable the engine,” he said.
The engine came on seconds later and the audience applauded, only for communication with the spacecraft to be lost shortly afterwards.
The mission was over. But the project, which cost about £76 million, had paved the way for future low-cost lunar exploration.
Before the landing attempt, the SpaceIL team remembered Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, who died in 2003 aboard Columbia when the space shuttle exploded during re-entry.
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