Here’s why the crashed Israeli moon mission was still a tremendous contribution to science


X Scalper

It came so close. It even took a selfie. But with only a few kilometers left to descend, something went wrong and the spacecraft Beresheet veered out of control, taking one final photograph just before it hit the surface. It is thought that there was a fault, possibly in the inertial system, possibly an engine failure, that led to the crash.

The spaceship was autonomous – its complex series of trajectory corrections to ensure a safe landing had been programmed in before launch, and could not be changed in real time. So by the time the data were received showing that something had gone wrong, it was too late to take remedial action. On the face of it, a dismal failure, once again showing that space exploration is a high risk, difficult enterprise that often ends in disappointment.

But this is not the right way to think of Beresheet. Despite its inglorious ending, the Israeli mission will be remembered as a pioneering achievement that helped to change the way the space industry operated. The story behind Beresheet (which is Hebrew for genesis, or beginning) is one of determination and drive. Three engineers got together to try for the Google Lunar XPrize – an international competition that challenged groups to design, build and fly a spacecraft to the moon and land it safely.

The company that the engineers formed, Space IL, attracted backers and funding, and made it all the way to the final – but were not ready to launch before the deadline of the challenge. Even so, they persevered, with further donations from backers and the general public, and made it to the moon. The spacecraft is a world first: a privately-funded, non-governmental vessel launched by a privately-funded, non-governmental launch company.