Hoping to inspire a new generation of Israeli science and technology students and join the elite ranks of the United States, Russia and China, the SpaceIL moon landing mission took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida 8.45pm Thursday, catching a lift on a US commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Thirty-eight minutes after takeoff, ‘Beresheet’ meaning ‘In the beginning’ and named after the first book of the Torah, successfully detached from the Falcon rocket – also carrying Indonesian and US satellites – and continued its journey to the moon.

If everything goes to plan, the Beresheet it will reach the moon’s orbit in one month’s time and land on its surface on April 11.

A project of high tech start up SpaceIL, and the first ever privately owned journey to the moon, the mission is hoping to put rocket boosters on Israel’s future technological frontiers and inspire the next generation of science, technology and engineering students.

SpaceIL founders with the Bible and other files heading for the moon.

The spacecraft is also sending an inspiring message to Israel and the Jewish People. A time capsule it carries contains a miniature copy of the Bible etched onto a tiny metal disc along with digitized files of Israeli cultural, historical and technological achievements, as well as an Israeli flag which it will raise on landing.

High Ambitions

This story has its humble beginnings when three young Israeli engineers, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub – all in their early and mid-thirties – spotted a Facebook post in 2011, announcing a challenge by Google to build, launch and land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon. Eager for the challenge, they created a high tech startup which they named SpaceIL, and filed their successful application two hours before the deadline. After a lengthy process, and being the only Israeli team in the contest, in January 2017 they were announced as one of the competition’s five finalists.

When Google pulled its promise of a $20m prize at the competition’s expiration last year, the Israeli team felt they were in too deep to give up. Understanding the impact of such a major leap in the advancement of science and technology education in Israel, SpaceIL turned to Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government who answered their calls.

Shoe-String Budget

Led by South African funder Morris Kahn who put down $100,000 straight away, others followed suit and soon the project was back on course with involvement from the Israel Aerospace Industries, Space Division. Built in the town of Yehud in central Israel, the project has garnered huge international interest especially due to its streamline budget.

The $100m Beresheet cost to build may sound like a lot of money, but it’s peanuts in the world of space exploration and hence has thrown open the door internationally to more future privately owned moon discovery missions.

“Our aim was to build a tiny lander that would weigh only a dozen pounds and cost just $10 million, but the challenge turned out to be much harder and much more expensive,” said Yonatan Damari, one of the founders of SpaceIL. Nevertheless standing less than 2 meters tall and weighing 1300 pounds, most of which is fuel, this is still considerably smaller and lighter than any previous moon landing attempt.

Instead of powering the quarter million miles needed to reach the moon directly from earth, it is taking the long eco route – some 400 million miles – using limited short fuel burst to gradually exit the earth’s orbit and in around a month’s time, enter the moon’s orbit, where it will once again power itself with short bursts towards the lunar surface.

During and after landing, Beresheet will use a special instrument designed by Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science to measure the moon’s magnetic field to learn more about its iron core, while NASA has installed a tracking system that will enable the control team it to precisely locate the spacecraft on the moon’s surface after the landing.

“We are a small, but huge country”

Watching a live streaming of the launch at the Israeli control room in Yehud – at 3AM this past Friday morning, Israel time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed, “A great step for Israel, and a huge step for Israeli technology.”

Winetraub holding a copy of coin-sized nano Bible on Beresheet.

“A marvelous thing is happening here,” he said. “Of the other three countries, (the United States, Russia & China) that have launched spacecraft to the moon, one is 800 times larger than us, one is 500 times larger than us and one is a little less. We are a small, but a huge country – huge in initiatives, huge in its ability to do things, huge in achievements.”

He added, “I asked that a Tanakh, an Israeli flag and the writing 'Am Yisrael Chai' [the People of Israel Live] be taken to the moon. They told me 'It's okay. It has already been taken care of.'”

As well as flying a message of Jewish pride, it will also raise an Israeli flag when it lands.

Indeed, a time capsule on board the Israeli spacecraft contains a micro Bible etched onto a tiny metal disc along with digital files of the Israeli national symbols, declaration of Independence and the travelers’ prayer. As well as flying a message of Jewish pride, it will also raise an Israeli flag when it lands.

Two weeks ago, as he inserted the time capsule into the spacecraft, Yonatan Winetraub, one of three SpaceIL founders, said: “We do not know how long the spacecraft and the time capsule will remain on the moon. Our aim is to inspire the next generation of science and technology students. It’s up to the next generation of Israelis to go there and bring it back.”