Photo: Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The United States is gearing up to return to the moon for the first time since 1972 — but we’re no longer the only country attempting this exploration feat in the modern age.
On Tuesday, Israel announced that it plans to land a probe on the moon in February, which would make it only the fourth country to reach the lunar surface.
“After eight challenging years, I am filled with pride that the first Israeli spacecraft, which is in its final construction and testing phases, will soon be making its way to the moon,” said Morris Kahn, president of the nonprofit SpaceIL that was involved in building the spacecraft, in a statement. “The launch of the first Israeli spacecraft will fill Israel, in its 70th year, with pride. It is a national accomplishment that will put us on the world’s space map.”
The spacecraft, which will launch in December from Cape Canaveral, will not carry humans to the surface. But it will conduct experiments to measure the moon’s magnetic field. Work on the project first began in 2011.
SpaceIL — the only Israeli contestant competing in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition that ended earlier this year with no winner — wants to set in motion an “Apollo effect” in Israel, according to a news release.
“The non-profit aims to change the discourse in Israel and to encourage boys and girls to regard science, engineering, technology and math as exciting opportunities for their future,” the release states.
The announcement comes as NASA shifts its focus to returning to the moon as a stepping stone for a mission to Mars.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has made it clear that returning to the moon for the first time since 1972 is a priority for his administration.
His $19.9 billion NASA budget proposal for the coming fiscal year tasks NASA with launching the first flight without a crew for Orion — the spacecraft meant to take humans to Mars — by 2022, followed by a launch of Americans around the moon in 2023.
Additionally, Trump’s proposal would allow the agency to begin working on the foundation of a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, saying it would “give us a strategic presence in the lunar vicinity that will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us further explore the moon and its resources and translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”
Trump’s proposed budget still must be approved by Congress.
The United States is the only country that has left human footprints on the moon, which we did for the first time in July 1969. The other two countries to land spacecraft on the moon are the Soviet Union in September 1959 and China in December 2013.
Alex Stuckey covers NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at email@example.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.