April 3rd 2019
You are the only British member of the Beresheet Moon Mission which has captured the world’s imagination. How did a young man from Essex end up on this project?
I’ve always been fascinated by flight. When I was a kid I built Airfix model aircraft with my Dad, flew balsa wood rubber-powered aircraft with my Grandad, and went to loads of airshows with my primary school ‘model making club’. It wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone that in 2008 I wound up studying Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol.
Part way through my third year, at the end of 2010, I read about three crazy Israeli engineers who wanted to land the first commercial spacecraft on the Moon. Until then I’d always assumed space was for the egghead NASA geniuses you see in Hollywood movies. But a new commercial space race was beginning, sparked partly by the Google Lunar XPrize, the largest incentive competition of all time. Some of these ‘NewSpace’ organisations were trying to do, for a fraction of the cost, what had only been so far achieved by two nation states (the USA and USSR) – to soft land a spacecraft on the Moon. Of the thirty-four unmanned missions attempting to make such a landing, two national space programmes with huge financial and technological resources had succeeded only a dozen times: a 35% success ratio. Now three guys from Israel wanted to take on the challenge. With no resources. I absolutely had to get involved.
I found the cofounders details on Facebook and messaged them asking if they needed any help. Then in the summer of 2011, I interned as an Engineer with SpaceIL. The ‘cutting edge aerospace organisation’ that I imagined consisted of only a handful of full-time staff working out of an abandoned room in Tel Aviv University. I had a blast, and when I was offered a full-time job leading one of the engineering teams, it was a fairly easy decision.
What was your role in this project?
Soon after graduating from Bristol in 2012 I joined SpaceIL as the sixth employee, leading the ‘Mission Analysis’ group - the ‘spacecraft navigators’ responsible for figuring out how to get the spacecraft from A to B. The Mission Analysis team plans the manoeuvres and trajectories and designs the systems necessary to determine where in space the spacecraft is, where it will be, and how to get it where it ought to be. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with such a talented group of individuals.
People thought this idea was doomed for failure. What did you do that was so radically different from previous Moon mission attempts, and how did you overcome the criticism?
Firstly, SpaceIL’s very purpose is radically different from all other lunar missions. SpaceIL aspires to use the mission to advance science and engineering in Israel, and to acquaint the younger generations with the exciting opportunities in their future. Through the anticipation and preparation for the historic landing on the Moon, students are motivated to broaden their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics which will in turn foster further entrepreneurship and innovation. SpaceIL aims to close educational gaps in Israeli society. The lunar mission is a means to this end, and serves as a source of inspiration for a long-term impact on the next generation of Israeli scientists and engineers.
On a technological front, the mission is ground breaking. We now have an Israeli non-profit attempting what only the three most advanced spacefaring nations have managed so far! Israel is not only the first nation to launch a commercial lander to the Moon, but if successful, it will be the lightest spacecraft to ever land on the Moon – all at a fraction of the typical cost, demonstrating how to reduce the cost of lunar exploration by tens of millions of dollars.
One way we were able to reduce the mission cost so much is by ‘hitchhiking’ into space. In our case, instead of flying straight to the Moon, we hitched a ride into space on a rocket with an Indonesian communication satellite into a relatively low orbit around Earth. This shared launch significantly reduced the cost, but added all sorts of technical complexities. Firstly, the space available on the rocket is reduced, meaning the physical design has to be considerably leaner. Secondly, you need to design a trajectory that is flexible enough to not only get to the Moon from the lower orbit, but also from an orbit which doesn’t actually point towards the Moon at the right time. This adds unprecedented challenges to the mission as a whole, but so far the mission has proven that these challenges can be overcome!
As we speak (in mid-March) we don’t know if this will be successful, what is the margin for error?
It's pretty slim! There is a whole daisy chain of events that have to go right before you get to land on the Moon. You can only really progress to the next stage of the mission if the previous stage is a success. The launcher must successfully get you into the correct orbit without blowing up, the spacecraft then has to turn on and communicate with the control room, you need to navigate well enough to perform the first manoeuvres, the engines and control systems need to work, and not only work, but be accurate enough so that you don’t miss the Moon. You then need to operate in a space environment where harsh radiation bombards the electronics, and the spacecraft is subjected to temperature extremes. All before you get to attempt a landing on an incredibly rocky and cratered surface at a distance of 400,000km. Exacerbated by the fact that it’s not actually possible to fully test the spacecraft in these environments on Earth!
As an example of the slim margins of error, the space shuttle Challenger exploded due to a failure in the O-rings. It only takes one small failure in a tiny component to lead to a complete catastrophe. An often-stated remark, by astronauts and engineers alike, is that “space is hard.” But as President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon… and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
Beresheet is performing remarkably well and has progressed very far in its own daisy-chain of events. There were a few teething problems at the beginning of the mission, but the team banded together and overcame them, and the mission is on track to arrive, and then land on the Moon at the beginning of April. SpaceIL has accepted a higher amount of risk than previous missions, but with higher risk comes higher reward.
How do you reconcile your background as a rocket scientist with your belief in God?
I actually see no contradiction between the two. Science is necessary to religion, and religion to science. They complement each other. To quote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, "Science is about explanation, religion is about meaning." Our sages tell us not to rely on miracles, and to do this, we need science. Maimonides was a doctor and astronomer, and Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein believed in God.
For me, my time working in space exploration provided perspective. I got a miniature 'overview effect' - the cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from outer space. It is the experience of understanding the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, shielded and by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish and inter-country and inter-personal conflicts become less important. To quote Apollo Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, "And suddenly I realised that the molecules of my body, and the molecules of the spacecraft...were prototyped and manufactured in some ancient generation of stars, and that was an overwhelming sense of oneness and connectedness."
I heard that you managed to place an object of meaning on board the spacecraft. Can you share with us what it was and why you chose it?
Yes, there’s currently a photo of my late Grandmother on the way to the Moon! The original landing date was on the 13th February, my Grandmother’s birthday, but in typical Israeli fashion the spacecraft was a little late. Beresheet is also carrying DVD-sized digital-analogue hybrid disks containing copies of the Bible, drawings from Israeli schoolchildren, English Wikipedia and 30 million pages of records representing a "backup" of humanity's knowledge.
What is next for Adam Green?
Since leaving SpaceIL in 2016, I spent two years earning an MBA and I’m currently working as a management consultant. ‘Man plans, and God laughs’ and all, but my plans are to help apply technologies and project management techniques to drive social impact. I’m drawn to projects based on their mission and potential for impact, and firmly believe that technology and sound managerial practice are invaluable tools for creating positive change in the world. I was truly honoured to lead the Mission Analysis team at SpaceIL for four years. It was a privilege to work with such amazing people, whose depth and breadth of talent was only surpassed by the size of their hearts. Whether Beresheet lands on the Moon or not, I already consider it to be a success - for the spark it has created in the imagination of thousands of Israeli children, and the path it has shone for a new wave of commercial space exploration.