Updated at 1:18 p.m. ET on April 12, 2019.
The malfunction happened just a few miles from the surface.
The spacecraft had spent days orbiting the moon and, before that, about a month and a half traveling the 4 million miles from Earth. Back home, its creators sat tense in a control room as they waited for the spacecraft—the product of years of effort and engineering—to land on the terrain.
“We’ve passed the point of no return,” said Opher Doron, who leads the space division at Israel Aerospace Industries, the country’s aerospace manufacturer, as the spacecraft pushed itself out of orbit on Thursday. “We’re in the landing process.”
The descent seemed to be going smoothly. And then: “We seem to have a problem with our main engine,” Doron said.“We are resetting the spacecraft to try to enable the engine.”
The landing sequence was preprogrammed. This was about the most they could try, and it appeared to work. “We have the main engine back on,” Doron said a few seconds later. Then, another voice in the control room: “But it’s not. No, no.”
Engineers lost communication with the spacecraft. Designed to touch down gently on the moon, it crashed instead.
Many spacecraft have gone to the moon in the past 60 years, some carrying people, but this was unlike the rest in one distinct way. If the spacecraft, named Beresheet—Hebrew for “in the beginning,” the opening of the Book of Genesis—had landed, it would have become the first spacecraft built by a private organization, not a national government, to touch the moon. And Israel, the home of the nonprofit group, SpaceIL, would have become the fourth nation—after the former Soviet Union, the United States, and China—to put something on Earth’s cratered companion. (Israel still joins a different space club, as the seventh nation to orbit the moon.)