Reaching for the Moon

People throughout Israel and around the world were focused last Thursday on the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet, as the moon lander, a mere 13 miles above its destination on the far side of earth’s natural satellite, unfurled a banner reading “Am Yisrael Chai,” took a picture of itself and prepared to descend to the lunar surface.

The planned soft-landing conclusion of the mission — the only privately funded and engineered one of its kind so far — didn’t come to pass, however, as, in its final moments, the lander’s main engine failed and communication with its command center ended, the craft having presumably crash-landed.

In the end, the mission was, if not a total success, an impressive one. Launched back on February 21, Beresheet soared into earth orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and spent six weeks looping around our planet, performing engine burns now and again to push its elliptical orbit closer and closer to the moon and finally allowing itself to be captured by the moon’s gravity, entering lunar orbit.

The engineered-by-Israelis spacecraft ended up covering about 4 million miles, more than any other vehicle sent to the moon. And, although its planned post-landing reports and measurements did not come to pass, the vehicle’s having reached the lunar surface put it in the company of three governmentally-financed and directed programs, those of the U.S., Russia and China.

After the mission ended, Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin tweeted: “Never lose hope — your hard work, teamwork and innovation is inspiring to all!”

Beresheet’s story began in 2011, when the Israeli nonprofit organization SpaceIL formed to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, offered to any party that could put a robot down softly on the moon, move it at least 1,650 feet on the lunar surface and have it send high-resolution imagery home to earth.

That competition ended last year without a winner, but SpaceIL and IAI, Israel’s biggest aerospace and defense company, continued working on its 5-foot-tall lander.

Last month, the X Prize Foundation announced that SpaceIL could win a special $1 million Moonshot Award if Beresheet successfully landed on the lunar surface. Just minutes after the moon crash, X Prize founder and Executive Chairman Peter Diamandis and CEO Anousheh Ansari said SpaceIL and IAI will receive the award despite failing to land.

“I think they managed to touch the surface of the moon, and that’s what we were looking for, for our Moonshot Award,” Mr. Ansari explained.

“And also, besides touching the surface of the moon,’ Mr. Diamandis added, “they touched the lives and the hearts of an entire nation, an entire world, schoolkids around the world.”

And the fact that SpaceIL system engineering manager Alexander Friedman, who was in charge of all operations of the lander after launch, is an observant Jew touched us. Although SpaceX, the American aerospace company with which SpaceIL partnered for the launching of the spacecraft usually launches its rockets on Shabbosos, after discussions with Mr. Friedman, it launched this one on a Thursday. Mr. Friedman also worked to schedule the engine maneuvers on weekdays.

He also told a reporter that when religious people like himself study science, they do so to appreciate Hashem’s wonders, to look at His creation “and see how it’s beautiful.”

The contrast between the swelling pride so many felt as the Beresheet craft launched successfully, went into orbit, first around earth, then around the moon, executing complex maneuvers over the many weeks of its long journey, and the disappointment of its failure to achieve its final goal of a soft landing was stark.

A sensitive soul might wonder if there lay in that contrast some element of lifnei shever gaon, “Pride precedes failure” (Mishlei 16:18), or perhaps a crossing of the line into a feeling of “kochi vi’otzem yadi asa li es hachayil hazeh,” “My strength and the power of my hand has granted me this success” (Devarim, 8:17).

None of us, though, in the absence of a navi today, can know Hashem’s reasons for what happens. And, certainly, at least a degree of pride of the proper sort was merited by an effort like the recent one that succeeded to the degree it did.

And yet, a modicum of modesty and humility is also a proper bequeathal of the Beresheet saga.

As Mr. Friedman put it, after expressing gratitude to have been part of so ambitious and largely successful a project: “Not everything is dependent on us. There are things that are beyond what we are able to control.”

A truth worthy of constant contemplation by all of us here on earth.