Brown professor watches lunar mission he worked on come to sudden end

PROVIDENCE – A Brown University professor who played a key role in the effort to land the first private spacecraft on the moon watched with his students Thursday as the unmanned craft crashed on the moon’s surface.

James W. Head III, a geological sciences professor, had helped select the landing site for the 300-pound spacecraft built by Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL. He and his students had watched the mission’s final minutes in a live video stream.

The lunar lander – called “Beresheet,” which is Hebrew for “Genesis” or “in the beginning” – was in the final stages of its trip to the moon when thrusters designed to slow its descent failed. The craft was descending at more than 300 mph and about 500 feet from the surface, and the thrusters didn’t reset in time to save it.

“The success of the Israeli Beresheet mission right up to the final landing attempt shows Israel’s successful performance as a pathfinder in the return to the moon,” Head said in a statement. “[Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel should try again. We are all anxious to help our Israeli colleagues further succeed in their space exploration endeavors.”

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Head had been asked to advise mission leaders about the landing site because of his experience working on NASA’s Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s in which he analyzed potential landing sites, studied lunar samples and data and provide training for Apollo astronauts.

Using Head’s recommendations, the team chose a site near the northern edge of Mare Serenitatis, a vast lava plain that is relatively free of boulders.

That’s where Beresheet crashed.

The SpaceIL mission grew out of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which offered $20 million for the first team to land a privately funded spacecraft on the moon. The deadline passed in March 2018 without a winner, but some finalists pressed forward with their projects.

Beresheet had launched from Florida in February and entered orbit around the moon last week.

Despite the crash, the XPRIZE Foundation said SpaceIL will received a $1 million “Moonshot Award.”

“The legacy SpaceIL will have on the future of the space industry is significant,” said XPRIZE executive chairman Peter Diamandis. “This team’s ability to build a lunar lander for $100 million and less than 50 engineers is remarkable, a leap forward towards affordable and accessible space exploration.”

Before the crash, Head said the SpaceIL mission had marked the start of a new era in space exploration in which private companies launch relatively inexpensive spacecraft that conduct only one or two crucial experiments.

Head has another mission to look forward to. He has also been working with another Google Lunar XPRIZE finalist, OrbitBeyond, which has a lunar mission planned for next year.

Brown said he and his students have been helping to plot areas where OrbitBeyond’s small lunar rover can traverse on the moon surface.

William Hamilton is PBN staff writer and special projects editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at hamilton@pbn.com.