Israel is heading to the moon.

And if it’s successful, the small nation of about 9 million will only be the fourth to successfully deliver a robotic lander to the lunar surface — after the heavyweights of China, Russia and the United States.

The mission has been long and the road arduous for Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, which has, in some iteration or another, been working on the concept of a lunar lander for nearly a decade.

Now, that work culminates Thursday evening, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch from complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with SpaceIL’s lander in tow. The 32-minute launch window opens at 8:45 p.m.

From the beginning, the goal for SpaceIL was to induce an “Apollo effect,” capturing the imaginations of the next generation of scientists in Israel, and encouraging kids to enter into the fields of science, engineering, technology and math, much like the Apollo missions in the U.S. did in the 1960s.

“This mission is a source of inspiration for people around the world, and we are looking forward to making history and watching as the Israeli flag joins superpowers Russia, China and the United States on (the) moon,” said philanthropist and businessman Morris Kahn, SpaceIL’s president, who has contributed $40 million in financing to the project.

SpaceIL’s mission began in earnest in 2009, when founders Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub registered for Google’s Lunar X Prize — a moon race to build and land a commercial lunar spacecraft. The first competitors to do it would win a $20 million first-place prize.

They founded SpaceIL in 2011, and in 2015 scored a launch contract with SpaceX. SpaceIL was later named one of five finalists for the prize, along with Cape Canaveral-based Moon Express.

But as the competition wore on, it became apparent that none of the companies were going to be able to meet the deadline to land on the moon, and so Google ultimately scrapped the competition in March 2018.

A rendering of Beresheet. Israel hopes to be the fourth nation to bring a robotic lander to the moon. SpaceIL/TNS

But SpaceIL and partner Israel Aerospace Industries pushed ahead, surviving financial challenges to complete the lander. In addition to Kahn, Dr. Miriam Adelson, an Israeli-American doctor and philanthropist, and her husband, casino magnate and investor Sheldon Adelson, have contributed $24 million to keep the lunar lander soaring.

“It is high time that the Jewish people and the State of Israel achieved this immortal milestone,” the Adelsons said in a news release. “In religion and ethics, science and scholarship, we have long reached for the stars; now we are rightfully reaching the moon.”

In honor of that milestone, SpaceIL named the $100 million spacecraft Beresheet, Hebrew for “in the beginning.” It’s small, weighing about 350 pounds without fuel and standing about 5 feet tall and 6.5 feet wide.

And it still has a complicated journey ahead.

The SpaceX mission, which has other payloads onboard, is highly complex. About 30 minutes after the launch, when the rocket is about 37,000 miles from Earth’s surface, Beresheet will disengage from the Falcon 9. The trip to the moon will take about two months, with the craft gradually orbiting Earth in larger ellipticals until it’s close enough to the moon that it can ignite its engines and reduce its speed to be picked up by the moon’s gravity.

Scientists at Israel Aerospace Industries’ facility in Yehud, Israel – about 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv – will be in charge of sending data to the autonomous craft as it performs each maneuver in its lengthy journey.

The landing itself, though, will be in the hands of Beresheet. The team in Israel will not be able to control the lander as it makes its 20-minute descent onto the lunar surface on April 11.

But if all goes well, the lander will spend some time on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, taking photos of the surface and measuring the magnetic field at its landing site.

And that’s where it’ll stay – until someday, perhaps, Israeli astronauts can retrieve it. Stored inside is a totem to the nation: A time capsule in the form of three disks containing Israeli artifacts such as its Proclamation of Independence, national songs and drawings by Israeli children.

“At SpaceIL we hope that the next generation of engineers and scientists will be able to bring Beresheet back to Earth,” the company said.

Despite its historical significance, Beresheet is not the primary payload on the journey.

In a rideshare agreement arranged by mission management company Spaceflight, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will also be shuttling a telecommunications satellite for the South East Asia region built by Palo Alto, California-based SSL. The Indonesian Nusantara Satu satellite will provide data, Internet and video connection throughout Indonesia.

A second small satellite for the U.S. Air Force Research Lab called S5 will also go to geosynchronous transfer orbit with a mission to test space situational awareness technologies.

After Beresheet detaches from the Falcon 9, the two stilettos will head to geostationary orbit, with the Air Force satellite detaching before they reach their final position.

As of Tuesday morning, the weather is looking good for a Thursday launch attempt. According to the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, weather is 80 percent “go” for launches on Thursday or Friday, in the case of a scrub. On both days, the biggest worry is a thick layer of clouds.

To watch the launch live, follow SpaceX on YouTube or SpaceIL on Facebook.

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