Students find how hard it is to land a rocket on the moon

A group watches as a friend tries to land a spacecraft on the moon. Photo by Samantha Cooper

Jonah Kerchner carefully maneuvered the spacecraft on the computer screen. The 13 year old pressed a button and the ship began to descend. He let go and pressed it again and the ship crashed. A box popped up informing him that his mission had ended in failure.

He groaned and clicked reset.

Jonah’s experience on Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in Rockville, was not so
different from the failed landing a few days before of Beresheet, the first Israeli spacecraft to land on the moon.
Jonah said he didn’t know much about Beresheet, which crashed on April 11 after a seven-week journey. “I’m just
interested in space,” he said of his reason for coming to what had been planned as a celebration of Beresheet’s safe arrival, and Israel becoming the fourth country to land a rocket safely on the moon.

Even so, event organizer Ted Avraham, founder of Rockville-based Jewish Student Satellite Initiative, called Beresheet a
“historical event” for Jews.

“There’s been Israeli space missions; there have been Jewish astronauts and this the first time that Israeli components, Israeli systems met with Jewish people and actually entered what is called deep space,” said Avraham, whose group aims to combine Judaism and STEM education and encourage Jewish teenagers to pursue careers in science.

It took only two days after the crash for SpaceIL, the private aerospace company that build Beresheet with state-owned
Israel Aerospace Industries, to announce it would pursue a second moonshot.

SpaceIL president and tech billionaire Morris Kahn said in a statement, “This is part of my message to the younger generation: Even if you do not succeed, you get up again and try.”

The Times of Israel reported that the craft’s gyroscope failed, which trigged the main engine to shut down and
ultimately causing the crash.

Kahn provided $27 million to the $100 million project. Another major contributor was American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The Israeli government contributed about $2 million dollars.

Three Israeli scientists founded SpaceIL as a response Google’s 2011 Lunar XPRIZE Project, which promised $20 million to the first private company to land a craft on the moon and complete a series of tasks.

While the money was never awarded, since none of the groups completed the task in time, the Israeli group was able to advance, in part from funding from Kahn.

Had Beresheet survived its landing, it would have taken pictures, measured the magnetic field of its landing spot and
measured the distance between the moon and earth. This would have helped scientists gain a better understanding of how the moon was formed.

The mission would have been significant for two other reasons: It would have been the first privately funded craft to have landed on the moon and the first low-cost moon mission.

“Aiming for the moon showcases Israel’s strongest abilities,” Kahn said during the broadcast of the landing attempt. “We dare to dream — innovation, desire, curiosity and complexity are part of our DNA, and this project has them all. I want to get the younger generation excited about and interested in space, just like the Apollo program did for the United States.”

The mission was also the rare event to bring Israelis together, Noa Landau wrote in Haaretz.

“The entire operation attracted enormous attention, partly because Israelis are yearning for a unifying experience. They want something not surrounded by partisanship, anything that people can agree on for a moment and be happy,” she wrote.

Back at the Bender JCC, the space activities were in full swing. Sasha Trauben, a second grader at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School, was building a rocket out of a straw. He had been learning about space in school and was excited to learn more.
Jonah said he hadn’t watched the landing. “I haven’t heard many details about it,” he said. “I’m disappointed.”

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