It was the week Israelis went to the polls, and yet, by the end of it, the undisputed winner was not a politician. It wasn’t even a human being.
As the Beresheet lunar lander began the final stages of its planned touchdown on the moon last Thursday, the Jewish world seemed to stop. Even Knesset coalition talks were reduced to a respectful whisper. The Jews were about to land on the moon – what else could possibly matter?
Watching the live feed from SpaceIL’s control room in the central Israeli city of Yehud, you couldn’t help but feel a little giddy. It helped that everyone there, from the dignitaries to the rocket scientists, appeared supremely confident in their ability to guide a 150-kilogram robot the size of a washing machine to a safe landing 384,000 kilometres away.
Everything looked good. The engines were righting the ship for final descent, and then Beresheet beamed back that historic picture – in the foreground, a plaque attached to its hull etched with an Israeli flag, the Hebrew words Am Yisra’el Chai and the English words “Small country, big dreams”; in the background, the surface of the moon, so close.
When the control room lost contact, and the SpaceIL official announced, in that typically matter-of-fact Israeli way, that Beresheet appeared to have crashed, there was disappointment – but only for a moment. It was hard to stay glum when everyone in Yehud looked so proud at what they had accomplished. So what if Beresheet didn’t stick the landing? We’ll just build another one.
Only afterward did many people learn the backstory of Yariv Bash, co-founder of SpaceIL along with Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub, through a Facebook video made by Nuseir Yassin, a Palestinian-Israeli vlogger who runs the popular Nas Daily. As Bash told Yassin, Beresheet started with a crazy dream and a simple social media post – “Who wants to go to the moon?” People laughed at the idea, and yet his team managed to build the least expensive spacecraft to ever reach the moon (even if only in bits and pieces).
But the real kicker was the revelation in the final minute of the video that Bash is paralyzed – the result of a skiing accident two years ago. Yassin had filmed him from the waist up to that point, only to reveal that Bash is sitting in a wheelchair, and that doctors say he will be bound to it for the rest of his life. Despite that handicap, nothing would stop Bash, who took to social media again, writing, “No worries. First we’ll put a spacecraft on the moon. Then we’ll fix my legs.”
Without a doubt, Israeli politics will come roaring back to the foreground as Benjamin Netanyahu organizes his governing coalition. There are major security issues to tackle, and the prime minister’s campaign promise to annex settlements in the West Bank is bound to provoke heated conversations about the future of the Jewish state. All the while, Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s most serious political competitor in some time, will be waiting in the wings.
But for one blessed day last week, as Beresheet took us to new heights, all of that seemed very far away.