Israeli Private Moon Probe Lifts Off on Space X Rocket

(Bloomberg) -- Israel hopes to be the first country to land a privately financed spacecraft on the moon as “Beresheet” -- Hebrew for Genesis -- lifted off aboard one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets early Friday.

The $100 million joint venture between SpaceIL and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. was financed mostly by Jewish philanthropists including Morris Kahn, SpaceIL’s president and a founder of Amdocs Ltd., and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The probe ended its “ride share” on SpaceX after 38 minutes and, if all goes according to plan, will land in the Sea of Tranquility on April 11, the project’s leaders said several days before the launch.

A successful flight would make Israel just the fourth country to land on the moon. So far only superpowers -- the Soviet Union, U.S. and China -- have made the voyage, with their governments’ strong financial backing.

“This is the first mission of a small country to the moon,” and a non-governmental effort at that, SpaceIL Chief Executive Officer Ido Anteby told reporters near Tel Aviv. “The whole world is watching because it’s clear to everyone that it opens a new horizon in commercial launches to the moon.”

Hundreds of people, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gathered at IAI headquarters to watch a live feed of the launch from Florida at 3:45 a.m. Israel time. President Reuven Rivlin hosted a pajama party with schoolchildren, hoping the lunar mission will galvanize science education in Israel the way the Apollo space program did in the U.S. decades earlier.

Previous Tragedies

Israel’s prior experience in space has been tinged with tragedy: The country’s first astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and an Israeli-made satellite that was set to go into orbit in 2016 aboard a SpaceX rocket blew up during a failed launch test.

Beresheet’s founders are banking on a better outcome. Their vehicle, which weighs 350 pounds (160 kilograms) without fuel, would be the smallest ever to make a lunar landing. Anteby said it will carry equipment to measure the moon’s magnetic field, but exposure to the sun will render the equipment unusable after just a few days; the craft ultimately will be abandoned between the remains of Apollos 15 and 17.

Beresheet also will carry a capsule with information on Israel and the Jewish people, and a complete Bible inscribed on a coin the size of a U.S. quarter.

Start-Up Chutzpah

SpaceIL’s founding was typical of Start-Up Nation: A group of friends hatched the project over drinks at a Tel Aviv-area bar in response to a Google technology competition with a $20 million prize, co-founder Yonatan Winetraub said. When the contest ended with no winner, the partners decided to seek other sponsors rather than give up the quest.

To save size and money, Beresheet’s designers decided to skip the kind of backup systems for power, communications and the like that are standard on most spacecraft. That leaves no margin for error if any key system fails.

“I’m not sure chutzpah” -- Yiddish for “audacity” -- “wouldn’t have been a better name than Beresheet,” said Opher Doron, general manager of IAI’s space division. “How much chutzpah is it to get to the moon with $100 million?”

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