Wild cheers turned to stunned silence Thursday night as Israel’s Beresheet unmanned spacecraft suddenly lost contact with the control center. Only minutes before, it had sent a spectacular selfie as it neared the surface of the moon.
It was a little after 10pm. I was at the Jerusalem Cinemateque watching a live feed of the historic event at a design-and-tech evening hosted by Start-Up Nation Central.
That’s when things started going wrong. Telemetry from Beresheet was momentarily lost and regained. A problem in the main engine was quickly repaired. Then communication with Beresheet was lost and the engine problem returned.
There were several groans from the audience but mainly just tense silence until finally we heard from the control room: “All the signs are that we will not be the fourth country in the world that lands on the moon, but we recorded a huge achievement. We reached the moon, but apparently not in the way we wanted.”
Doron said, with surprising poise, “We had a failure in the spacecraft; we unfortunately have not managed to land successfully. We are the seventh country to orbit the moon and the fourth to reach the moon’s surface. It’s been a tremendous achievement up to now.”
SpaceIL Chairman Morris Kahn, 89, who contributed $42 million to the privately funded effort, took the microphone from Doron. “Well, we didn’t make it,” said Kahn. “But we definitely tried. And I think that the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to Kahn, “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again. We will try again. We reached the moon but we want to land more softly and this will be on the next attempt. In another three years a spacecraft will land on the moon – whole.”