During the height of the space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in the 1960s, Americans gathered around their black-and-white televisions to watch John Glenn circle the earth, and Neil Armstrong bound across the lunar surface 50 years ago this year. NASA’s space program was a big thing and people rose early in the morning or in the middle of the night to watch lunar launches and landings, space shots and splashdowns.
Following that nascent period of space exploration was the space-shuttle era spanning 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, when people grabbed their lawn chairs and headed to California’s high desert to hear the signature double sonic boom and watch the shuttle glide through the stratosphere to finally coast to a stop dragging a giant parachute down a dusty runway at Edwards Air Force base.
In the current era, with NASA’s space program almost a memory, recent public-private space partnerships have garnered some attention from the public, but perhaps not with the wow-factor of those first stabs at reaching out into the cosmos.
That’s not the case at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, where lower, middle and high school Hebrew classes are eagerly following a new space mission. The Israel Space Agency Beresheet unmanned lunar lander was launched from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 21, and is expected to touch down on a lava plain in the moon’s Sea of Serenity on April 11.
Beresheet is Hebrew for Genesis, or beginning, symbolizing Israel’s first space mission, in partnership with the private company, SpaceX. Israel’s SpaceIL is a nonprofit established in 2011 with the goal of landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon.
In mid-January, the Beresheet lunar spacecraft was transported via cargo plane from Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, Israel, to Orlando, Florida for the Cape Canaveral launch.
About two weeks before the launch, Beth Tfiloh Hebrew teachers began talking to students about Israel’s first space mission.
Middle School Hebrew teacher Liora Schlesinger said it is always important to BT faculty “to inspire our students to see themselves as people who can achieve anything they set their minds to.”
“At the same time, we as Hebrew teachers want to teach Hebrew as a living language and in cultural context. This mission to the moon gave us an opportunity to do both,” Schlesinger added. “We could speak about how even a small group of engineers and scientists in a small country like Israel could, working together, aim for an ambitious goal.”
Given that this was an Israeli effort, Schlesinger said the Hebrew language “naturally became part of the story,” including technical terms in Hebrew, “so Hebrew comes alive in a context that is exciting and meaningful to the students.”
Meanwhile, a week before the Israeli spacecraft took off to the moon, BT’s Lower School Hebrew teachers decided to discuss the historic moment with the students.
“Our students were fascinated to learn about this Israeli accomplishment and were especially interested in Beresheet, the small spacecraft used, which was merely the size of a washing machine,” said fourth-grade Hebrew language teacher Vered Mei-Tal. “We also learned that the spacecraft carried drawings by Israeli children, which inspired some creative activities in our classrooms.”
Teacher Ina Krief asked her second-grade students to write sentences in Hebrew about what they would take with them to the moon, while Miri Levin’s third-grade students wrote letters to aliens telling them about life on Earth.
“Some of the students created a video clip interviewing an astronaut,” Mei-Tal said. “Of course, they did all of this in Hebrew!”
Mei-Tal and Inbar Kahn’s fourth-grade students read a Hebrew magazine about spaceships and then drew pictures that included Hebrew sentences describing what they would bring to the moon. Some of their answers included family, friends, food, pets, toys and a camera.
“While some students stayed up late to watch the live launch at home, we all watched the launch in class the next day,” Mei-Tal said.
The Beresheet spacecraft is carrying a time capsule with digital files that include Israel national symbols such as its Declaration of Independence, Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah” and the Israeli flag, as well as cultural, art and scientific objects, photos and information.
“The time capsule, along with the spacecraft, will remain on the moon indefinitely, even after completing Israel’s first lunar mission, according to a SpaceIL statement. “With no plans to return to Earth, the spacecraft and information within the time capsule’s disks could be found by future generations.”
Beresheet, once deployed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that took it into space, is orbiting the Earth and will eventually leave Earth’s gravity, enter the moon’s gravitational pull and finally land on the moon.
“Once the spacecraft, carrying the Israeli flag, lands on the moon in April, it will begin taking photos of the landing site,” said SpaceIL. “It will also perform measurements of the magnetic field in a scientific experiment carried out in cooperation with the Weizmann Institute and NASA. The data collected from this experiment will be transferred to Israel Aerospace Industry’s (IAI) control room during the two days following the landing.”
Meanwhile, back on Earth, BT students have been watching videos explaining the mission and how the spacecraft is getting to the moon.
“Students were very excited to follow the news and updates about the spacecraft’s journey,” Mei-Tal said. “Israel may be small but she has achieved some big goals!”
Soon, BT Students will be watching when Beresheet and its time-capsule cargo touches down on the moon, perhaps inspiring the next generation of space travelers — especially those fluent in Hebrew.