Faith Provides Inspiration and Challenges for Israeli Lunar Lander

An illustration of the flight path of the Beresheet spacecraft to the moon. Image courtesy of SpaceIL

As engineers at Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL prepared for the launch of their lunar lander last year, they did what most aerospace engineers do: They checked and rechecked every element of their tiny spacecraft, planning for all conceivable issues that could hinder its journey to the moon.

At least one also worried about the calendar.

SpaceIL system engineering manager Alexander Friedman, who is in charge of all operations for the group’s “Beresheet” lander after launch, identifies as an Orthodox Jew. As such, he does not work on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath that lasts from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

But SpaceX, the American aerospace company SpaceIL partnered with to catapult its lander into orbit, typically launches its rockets on Saturdays.

The Beresheet spacecraft in the clean room during construction. Photo by Alex Polo, courtesy of SpaceIL

“Because I am religious guy, I am forbidden to work on Saturday, except (in a) very extreme situation,” the 68-year-old Friedman told Religion News Service.

He said that fact led to many “long discussions” between SpaceIL and SpaceX, with hopes of moving the launch to a different day of the week.

SpaceX declined to comment when asked about those discussions, but it appears the issue was eventually ironed out: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off into space with Beresheet aboard on Thursday, Feb. 21, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 8:45 in the evening — which is just before 4 in the morning on Friday in Israel.

The Beresheet spacecraft lifts off
aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket
on Feb. 21, 2019, from Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station in
Florida. Photo courtesy of SpaceIL

The launch time was just one of many religious elements surrounding the Israeli Beresheet lander, whose name is a reference to the Hebrew word for “in the beginning” that introduces the biblical book of Genesis. Not only is the spacecraft — which is carrying copies of Jewish prayers and holy texts — poised to make history for Israel and the privately funded space industry, it’s also quietly modeling for the broader aerospace industry how religion and science work together to reach the stars.

Originally conceived in a Tel Aviv bar in 2010 by an Israeli a computer engineer and two of his friends, Beresheet was designed as an entry in Google’s Lunar X Prize competition, which offered $20 million for the first privately financed group to land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface.

The contest eventually concluded without a victor in January 2018 (although SpaceIL was a finalist), but the Beresheet team — which had spent years crafting a lander to be as inexpensive as possible — pressed on. Unlike its business-focused competitors, SpaceIL had secured funding from philanthropists who believed in the cause, securing windfalls from billionaires such as Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications mogul, and prominent American Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson.

The result was a lander-on-a-budget that would hitch a ride on a SpaceX rocket with the primary goal of inspiring Israeli schoolchildren to learn more about space and engineering. It’s also carrying religious cargo: The lander is toting a time capsule of digital discs stuffed with files that include Israeli symbols, a Bible and a copy of the Wayfarer’s Prayer — a prayer for safe journey often recited by Jews.

A separate “Lunar Library” provided by the Arch Mission Foundation is also aboard Beresheet and includes texts from multiple world religions housed within a massive “30 million page archive of human history and civilization” device that resembles a DVD.

“The Lunar Library contains Old and New Testaments in many editions and languages,” Nova Spivack, co-founder of the Arch Mission Foundation, told RNS via Twitter. “It also contains all other world religions, as any good library should.”

Yariv Bash, from left, Yonatan Winetraub and Kfir Damari
insert the time capsule into the Beresheet spacecraft.
Photo courtesy of SpaceIL

The Lunar Library includes a large history of humans
and civilization. Photo by Bruce Ha/ Arch Mission

Before the launch, Friedman told the Cleveland Jewish News that he had a prayer composed for the mission expressing hope that God will “lead our spacecraft to peace and bring it to peace, and save it from all sorts of malfunctions, and allow us to see it reach the moon in peace.”

Malfunctions are a key concern for the mission as, in keeping with its thrifty approach, Beresheet is using a scrappy, cost-effective method to make its way to the moon. Instead of blasting off and immediately beelining to earth’s silvery satellite, the tiny lander entered into orbit around the Earth and is slowly elongating its path into ever-wider rotations using small, fuel-saving maneuvers.

The plan is to extend its elliptical rotations until it is captured by the moon’s gravity, at which point the lander can touch down and complete its brief mission — primarily gathering imagery and studying the moon’s magnetic field — before deteriorating in the lunar heat.

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Source: Religion News Service