Merritt Island, Fla. — The hot Florida sun had begun to set, and the temperature was cooling down at the Kennedy Space Center. People were pulling out their sweatshirts and helping themselves to a picnic-style buffet. Those in the know — the ones who had witnessed rocket launches in the past — had brought blankets and camp chairs. The rest of us found seats on the bleachers or stood on the viewing balconies further up.
Despite the fact that history was in the making last Thursday — a tiny, embattled country in the Middle East trying to become only the fourth to send a robotic landing craft to the moon — the atmosphere was reminiscent of summer camp (as were the particularly tasty, prepackaged chocolate chip cookies).
In the hours before the 8:45 p.m. liftoff, my rocket enthusiast son Jacob and I, who were guests of the SpaceIL mission, were suddenly surrounded by people speaking Hebrew; it was exciting but also, admittedly, a bit disorienting in such an iconic American setting. Next to us at the Space Center were three young Israeli men who had traveled from Tel Aviv for the launch. They too were guests of SpaceIL and, as master’s degree students at the Weizmann Institute in the field of interplanetary weather mapping, had volunteered their services for a few months working on algorithms to help determine the ideal landing site for the spacecraft.
By now, the SpaceIL story is well-known, and a potent symbol of Israel’s high-tech prowess. In 2011, the Google Lunar X Prize offered $30 million to the first team that was able to build, launch, and land a spacecraft on the moon. Three young Israeli engineers, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari, and Yonatan Winetraub, entered the competition. With the help of tens of thousands of volunteers and the generosity of donors, by 2015 they secured a launch contract and a virtual “ticket to the moon.” The contest, however, expired without a winner in March 2018, but the three persisted, resolute in their determination to launch the spacecraft and promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula in Israel.
After meeting with the students, we met a team that worked on flight “logistics” (mainly people who enabled other companies to buy space on the rocket); someone who contributed his expertise in the field of augmented reality; and a computer engineer who was a childhood friend of Winetraub’s and had flown overnight from San Francisco to be there. The friend minimized his own contribution and said that he had only volunteered a month or two of work early in the project. These young men and women were, for the most part, humble despite the fact they were, quite literally, rocket scientists. None had ever been to a live launch before, and their enthusiasm was contagious.
We were there only through a stroke of luck that involved a former colleague of mine who was consulting for the ICenter for Israel Education, SpaceIL’s North American partner; she remembered my mentioning that my son ran a rocket Instagram page. (“Israel is going to send a spaceship to the moon,” my son Jacob told his incredulous mother one day five years ago after a SpaceIL co-founder had spoken to his middle school class.)
At 5 p.m., the SpaceIL contingent (there were roughly 300 Israeli scientists and guests) got together for a “meet and greet.” The event was mostly comprised of young, excited Israelis chatting and hugging each other, and it had given me a sense of how specialized this work was. I got the impression that many of these people had never met in person and here they were meeting on launch day. The atmosphere was electric. Damari spoke briefly to the crowd, insisted on a selfie of our group as we shouted, “… to the moon!” and the group gradually made its way to the buses that would take us to the launch site.
With the sun now fully set, at T-Minus 15 minutes, the overhead lights at the viewing stand were shut off, and we started to hear the live launch feed from Space X mission control in Los Angeles. We were warned that there would be a five-second delay from the L.A.-based feed. As one might imagine, this led to spirited debates in Hebrew among our engineer neighbors as to precisely how and when we should begin our countdown, but they seemed to reach some sort of consensus. Several people set up their cameras, and a young man in front of us tied an Israeli flag around his neck, so it flew like a cape over his jacket.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, below us near the bleachers, Tefilat Ha’Derech (The Traveler’s Prayer) and Shehecheyanu (the prayer one says when doing something for the first time) were being recited. Above us on the viewing stand, one of the engineers had taken it upon himself to begin our unofficial countdown at 100 seconds, and we all joined in. There we were, counting backward from 100 in Hebrew (with Jacob doing his best to translate what was going on to the Indonesian spectator next to him), and then it happened.
The sky got very bright, as night briefly seemed to become day, and the ground shook as we all cheered and shrieked and traced the bright light tracking through the sky. Beresheet (Genesis), as the lunar lander is called, was streaking toward the moon. There was an enormous boom and indecipherable exclamations as everyone tried, unsuccessfully to find words. It’s impossible to describe what it felt like, but it was nothing short of amazing.
Then it was over. No one really knew what to do or say. It was one of those experiences that just overwhelm you. More subdued and suddenly quite tired, Jacob and I made our way to the buses that would take us to the parking lot and then back to our hotel.
A day later, we were still getting oriented. We both feel that this experience will stay with us for a very long time. What strikes me most is how privileged we were to have been present for this historic moment. (After successfully completing its first engine-firing maneuver on Monday, Beresheet, which is scheduled to land on the moon on April 11, missed a scheduled trajectory adjustment Tuesday as engineers sought answers.)
For one day, nobody spoke about politics or elections. For one day, we were celebrating something that would have been unfathomable, on so many levels, just two generations ago. We feel pride in the accomplishments of this new generation of chalutzim/pioneers from this tiny country just 70 years old.
Sarah Friedman is a psychologist in private practice in New York City.