The spacecraft’s orbit of the moon was a first for a private effort, but the landing failure highlighted the risks of fast and cheap approaches to space exploration.
A small spacecraft that has captured the imagination and excitement of people in Israel and around the world appears to have crashed into the moon on Thursday.
“We had a failure in the spacecraft,” Opher Doron, the general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division, which collaborated on building the spacecraft, said afterward. “We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully.”
The mood at the command center was somber but still celebratory.
“Well we didn't make it, but we definitely tried,” said Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur and president of SpaceIL, the nonprofit that undertook the mission. “And I think the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who attended the event at the mission’s command center in Yehud, Israel, said, “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again.”
[Sign up to get reminders for space and astronomy events on your calendar.]
If it had succeeded, the robotic lander, named Beresheet, which means “Genesis” or “in the beginning” in Hebrew, would have been the first on the moon built by a private organization, and it would have added Israel to just three nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China — to have accomplished that feat.
Beresheet reached the launchpad and was headed to space aboard a SpaceX rocket in February. It orbited the moon, by itself a historic accomplishment for a private organization. That had been done by only five nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, Japan and India — and the European Space Agency. But the landing was the riskiest part of the mission.
More than 2,500 well-wishers came to witness the landing, sitting in plastic chairs on a lawn outside the command center.
But the spacecraft stumbled on the last part of its journey. The start of the automated landing sequence went as planned. Beresheet aimed to set down within the northeastern section of a lava plain known as the Sea of Serenity, chosen largely because it is flat with few craters.
The spacecraft even took a picture of itself at an altitude of 13 miles with the moon in the background.
The atmosphere grew quieter and tenser when it became apparent that not everything was working properly.
Still high above the surface, the engine cut out. “We seem to have a problem with our main engine,” said Mr. Doron, who was providing commentary of the spacecraft’s progress. “We are resetting the spacecraft to try to enable the engine.”
Outside the control room, the onlookers groaned.
Some seconds later, he said, “We have the main engine back on.” The crowd started to clap, but Ido Anteby, SpaceIL’s chief executive, immediately interjected, “But it’s not. No, no.”
Mr. Doron added, “The main engine is back on, but we have lost communication with the spacecraft.”
Nothing more was heard from Beresheet.
The appointed landing time — 10:25 p.m. in Israel, or 3:25 p.m. Eastern time — came and passed, and the SpaceIL team realized the mission was over.
Daniela Geron, one of the SpaceIL engineers, was exhausted. She had only slept 3.5 hours, as she helped make some of the final preparations to aid in the tracking of Beresheet on its landing attempt.
“Right now I feel kind of overwhelmed,” she said. “I feel pride. But also sad. And disappointed.”
She was hopeful this was a first step for private efforts to explore space, not the end. “This can be done by the private sector,” Ms. Geron said. “We can go to the moon. Maybe even further"
The mission cost about $100 million, far less than government-sponsored lunar spacecraft, but it highlighted the trade-off in such faster and cheaper projects. The missions are also inherently riskier, and their backers must be willing to accept periodic failures.
NASA has embarked on that approach for sending small experiments to the moon. In November, the agency chose nine companies to vie for $2 billion in contracts over the next decade. NASA officials have emphasized the need for speed rather than assured success, and they expect some of those missions, like SpaceIL’s, to fail.
“I was a little bit depressed,” said Asaf Ezrai, 19, one of the spectators who said he wanted to pursue a career in science. “But it's a great achievement even to come to this conclusion in the end."
Three young Israeli engineers — Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub — started SpaceIL, aiming to win the $20 million first prize in the Google Lunar X Prize. They also hoped the effort would inspire children in Israel to pursue careers in science and engineering.
The task proved more arduous, both technically and financially, than any of the X Prize teams anticipated. After several extensions, the final deadline for the prize expired last year. The SpaceIL team pushed on, with Mr. Kahn providing the needed money to finish.
Last month, the X Prize Foundation announced that even though the competition had ended, it would give SpaceIL a $1 million Moonshot Award for a successful landing.
After Thursday’s failure, Peter Diamandis, the foundation’s executive chairman who was at the command center, said SpaceIL would still receive the $1 million.
Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator offered his congratulatory condolences, too.
“Hopefully it's not the end of the journey,” Mr. Bash said.
Earlier reporting on SpaceIL’s mission
Miriam Berger contributed reporting from Yehud, Israel
Kenneth Chang has been at The Times since 2000, writing about physics, geology, chemistry, and the planets. Before becoming a science writer, he was a graduate student whose research involved the control of chaos. @kchangnyt
A version of this article appears in print on
, on Page
of the New York edition
with the headline:
In Israeli Moon Landing, Joy, Then Just Silence. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe