Israel nearly became the fourth country to successfully land a craft on the moon as “Beresheet,” save for a last-minute issue with its main engine just before touchdown in mid-April that caused it to crash into the lunar surface.

“Beresheet,” named after the first word and the first book in the Torah (meaning “in the beginning”), lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 22 and almost completed its 6.5 million-kilometer journey to the moon. It succeeded in entering the moon’s orbit, which is an accomplishment achieved by only seven countries.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration played a supportive role, exemplifying the close relationship between the United States and Israel, by sending a payload called the Lunar Retroreflector Array (LRA).

“The LRA is a small dome-shaped assembly with eight quartz mirrors. The mirrors are intended to be reflectors that other spacecraft can use for orientation and high-precision landings,” reported Extreme Tech.

A photo taken by the “Beresheet” spacecraft, in which an Israeli flag can be seen on a plaque with the inscription, “Am Israel Chai,” or “the Jewish people lives,” and in English, “Small country, big dreams,” taken 37,600 kilometers from Earth. Credit: SpaceIL/IAI.

In April 2018, a former U.S. congressman from Oklahoma, Jim Bridenstine, 43, became the 13th administrator of NASA and has been a major supporter of the Israeli space mission.

“While NASA regrets the end of the SpaceIL mission without a successful lunar landing of the ‘Beresheet’ lander, we congratulate SpaceIL, the Israel Aerospace Industries and the state of Israel on the incredible accomplishment of sending the first privately funded mission into lunar orbit,” he said in a statement. “Every attempt to reach new milestones holds opportunities for us to learn, adjust and progress. I have no doubt that Israel and SpaceIL will continue to explore and I look forward to celebrating their future achievements.”

JNS talked with Bridenstine by phone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: NASA sent the LRA alongside the Israeli lunar spacecraft. Despite ‘Beresheet’ crashing, did the LRA remain intact?

A: We’re trying to figure that out right now. It’s possible we might be able to get some reflection from it, but we don’t know as of yet.

Q: Just days after the crash, SpaceIL announced a second attempt to land on the moon. Does NASA plan to be part of that mission?

A: Yes, 100 percent. We look forward to it.

Q: What would it consist of?

A: We’re going through a process right now to determine what type of payload we would like to have on ‘Beresheet’ 2. At this point, we haven’t decided, but we look forward to working with our partners over there at SpaceIL to figure out what are the mass capabilities, what are the volume capabilities, the power capabilities—all of the things that we need to determine so that we can figure out what is the best payload that we can put on board.

Q: For our readers, do you mind describing what a payload is and what it could look like on ‘Beresheet’ 2.0?

A: We’re looking at putting in some scientific instruments onboard the vehicle so that we can actually do a number of different experiments. We want to characterize the lunar regolith, which is the soil of the moon. We want to maybe understand if there is water-ice in that regolith. If there is water-ice, how pure is it? How is it mixed with the regolith? And how hard would it be to extract those kinds of things? There are a lot of different scientific instruments that we can put onboard to help us better understand the lunar surface, and we are working with SpaceIL to make those determinations.

Q: Aside from the SpaceIL mission, what role does NASA play in the U.S.-Israel relationship? Are there any upcoming joint projects? 

A: NASA and Israel have a history. It goes back to Ilan Ramon, who was the first Israeli astronaut who died on the Columbia in 2003. This is a long relationship that has been very good for our nations, and we look forward to continuing it not just with scientific discoveries, but also eventually human exploration. We would be very interested in seeing how Israel might be willing and able to participate in our return to the moon, which, of course, we want to see as an international effort. Israel has amazing capabilities we think could be helpful to our efforts there.

Q: What would a return to the moon look like in terms of cooperation between America and Israel?

A: It’s really up to Israel to help identify where they would like to participate. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of where that process is.

Q: Besides the responsibilities entailed in each job, what has been the difference between being a congressman and now as NASA administrator in terms of this relationship? Is there something about the alliance you’ve discovered as the head of NASA that you didn’t know while in Congress?

A: I don’t think so. Our partnership with Israel has been long and steadfast. And it seems to be the case here at NASA as well. I know that this administration has been a very strong supporter of Israel, and they’ve been very supportive of our efforts to collaborate with Israel off-space exploration, so it’s been a good and productive relationship.

Q: What are the biggest challenges going forward for space exploration as it pertains to the U.S.-Israel relationship? Is it beating out adversaries like China or Iran?

A: From a space exploration perspective, what NASA does, we partner with nations around the world to achieve stunning outcomes. NASA is really not involved in the geopolitical challenges that exist around the world. In fact, we have a partnership with Russia that goes back to 1975, the Apollo Soyuz program. That was, of course, during the Cold War, and we’ve been partnering with Russia since 1975 and even today on the International Space Station. So, terrestrial relationships and those kind of very challenging dynamics, we work really hard to not have those challenges spill over into space exploration.

That’s really what’s unique about NASA. We have an ability to partner with all nations, and we continue to do that.

Q: One of the most noteworthy aspects of the ‘Beresheet’ initiative was the cost. Does that prove that the United States or any other country could go to space without spending excessive taxpayer funds?

A: The cost was really amazing. We’re talking about $95 million to deliver a payload to the moon, as it was really, really close to achieving its objectives. We expect ‘Beresheet 2’ will be successful, and that it will be even less expensive than ‘Beresheet.’

There’s another dynamic here. It’s not just that it was inexpensive; it’s that it was commercial. I think the nation of Israel put something like $10 million into it, and the rest was privately funded. That’s another amazing accomplishment. We can get to the moon with private, with commercial investment. I think that’s one of the lessons of ‘Beresheet.’

My first trip as the NASA administrator was, in fact, to Israel. I had the opportunity to share this amazing effort of SpaceIL with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a great meeting. I enjoyed it very much, and I’ll tell you he was as excited as anybody when it comes to Israel’s space exploration initiative.

Q: Do you mind elaborating on that trip and that meeting?

A: It was a very positive and productive trip. We met with the heads of the Israel Space Agency. We met with the leadership of SpaceIL and, of course, we met with political leadership. For a small, young country, they have a lot of amazing capabilities, and certainly they have a lot of value that they can add to the human effort to expand into the solar system. So I look forward to working with them in a lot of ways in the future.

Q: Earlier, you mentioned the Ilan Ramon. Is there any possibility we could see an Israeli astronaut on the next U.S. mission to the moon?

A: The vice president has said that the next man and the first woman on the moon will be Americans. But certainly beyond that, we would love to have Israel partner with us in a way to maybe one day have an Israeli astronaut on the surface of the moon.