The moon’s distance from Earth varies from approximately 225,000 miles to about 250,000 miles. Because the moon is much smaller than Earth, and so has a weaker gravitational field, most of the trip to the moon — the first 200,000 miles or so — is uphill: Earth is still trying to pull you back, albeit with an ever-diminishing attraction as you get farther away.
It’s hard to get there, and even harder to land once you do. Several countries have crashed objects on the moon, but to date only three — the old Soviet Union, the United States, and China, and in that order — have managed to achieve soft landings on the moon.
The Soviets were the first to actually land a spacecraft on the moon, back in 1966; the United States was just a few months behind them. The United States, of course, was the first to land a man on the moon, in July of 1969. Though a dozen American astronauts have walked on the moon, no other nation has sent a man (or woman) there.
China, the third country to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon, took a long time to do it: it wasn’t until 2013 that they joined the exclusive club of lunar-landing nations. China can claim, however, to be the first and only nation to land — as opposed to crash — a vehicle on the far side of the moon, the side we never see from Earth. They did that in January of this year.
The moon will be about 225,000 miles away in early April when the Israeli Beresheet spacecraft is scheduled to arrive there. The trip will require the craft to make three orbits of Earth, each a little more distant than the last, until it finally breaks free of Earth’s gravity and establishes an orbit around the moon. The Beresheet will then, if successful, make Israel only the fourth nation to achieve a soft lunar landing.
It will also be the first time that a private concern, as opposed to a government, has landed a vehicle on the moon. In that sense, the Beresheet — which means “genesis” or “in the beginning” in Hebrew — will live up to its name, as it ushers in the age of private, albeit unmanned, lunar travel.
The Beresheet was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 21 and is scheduled to land on the moon on April 11. The spacecraft is flying on a shoestring, without the normal backup systems and redundancies of a typical big-budget space flight. Everything will have to go right for it to successfully complete its mission.
But if it does, Israel, this tiny and beleaguered nation, will once again demonstrate its exceptional ability to stand with the biggest and most powerful nations.