Israel’s first attempt at a lunar landing may not have been a technical success, but the bold venture’s ability to rally a nation surpassed all expectations, says the chief engineer of the Beresheet project.
Alexander Friedman, the moon mission’s system engineering manager and director of the control room, was guest speaker at a fundraising evening for Chabad of Westmount on May 22.
It’s an organization with which he feels at home. Friedman is a Lubavitch Hasid, who does not look like a rocket scientist.
Even the project’s largest donor and head, Morris Kahn, was surprised when he met Friedman.
“The first time he saw me, he said, ‘What is this religious guy doing here?” Friedman said. Kahn soon recognized the modest man’s capability.
The project was privately funded by donors around the world, among them former Montrealer Sylvan Adams who made aliyah in 2015.
The robotic spacecraft, designed and built by the nonprofit company SpaceIL with Israel Aerospace Industries, crashed into the moon on April 11, after the descent engine malfunctioned close to the surface. Beresheet was launched on Feb. 21 from Florida atop a larger craft.
Friedman, who was born in Moscow in 1950, grew up in the Chabad movement. His father, a decorated Second World War veteran, was imprisoned for trying to restore Judaism and only released when Friedman was seven.
Friedman, who managed to immigrate to Israel in 1970, is unaccustomed to his new fame. “I go in the street and people say, ‘Nu? When are you going [to the moon] again?’” If he knows, he wasn’t saying.
It was Friedman who arranged to have the basic texts of Chabad – the Humash, Psalms and Tanya – aboard the landing module.
For Friedman, the interest the project generated among young Israelis was key. SpaceIL has an educational mission as well, and its people have spoken to thousands of schoolchildren and are working to improve the teaching of physics and mathematics.
Friedman joined Israel’s space program at its inception in the early 1980s and worked on its first communications satellite Ofeq. Friedman was system manager of the three subsequent AMOS satellites.
He sees no contradiction between religion and science.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe said many times there is no contradiction. All of the world is the creation of God,” he said. “Science is about understanding better how this beautiful world was created.”
The Beresheet project had its genesis in 2011 when “some guys sitting in bar” decided to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize: a US$20 million award to the first privately funded team to put a robotic craft (softly) on the moon.
Kahn, a billionaire Israeli entrepreneur, was approached to contribute $10 million and SpaceIL was formed.
The total mission cost was kept to under $100 million, an astonishingly low sum compared to what the superpowers spend on their lunar landings, Friedman said.
“We had to economize in many ways; we took an Uber to the moon,” he joked. “We had to find cheap and creative solutions.”
The “small country, big dreams,” as the slogan on the lander read, was at a disadvantage besides size.
“For the superpowers, [lunar landings are] a national program, a national priority,” he said, “with a practically unlimited budget.” About a year before the launch, the project came to a halt because the money had run out, he said. Fortunately, Kahn was able to raise more funds to get it restarted.
None of the professional team had any prior experience in the field either. Volunteers from all walks of life were vital to the project. Even high school students helped with the research, noted Friedman, the father of seven and grandfather of 21, some of whom as young as three were caught up in the excitement.
“The impact was crazy, unbelievable,” he said.
Friedman himself was “shocked” when the chief manager of NASA, commented that, “it was their pleasure to be the partner of our company.”
But his greatest pride is the last photo Beresheet took as it approached its destination. The triumphant “Am Yisra’el Chai” and the Israeli flag on its exterior are clearly visible against the distant Earth.
Israeli Consul General of Israel to Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces David Levy, thanked Friedman and his team for “inspiring an entire generation of Israeli children to look up at the skies and think everything is possible.”