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Progress and the price of sacrifice

Prof. Yaakov Gwen explains why we must continue space exploration 

By: Prof. Yaakov Gwen 
I'm taking a Saturday afternoon nap and suddenly I'm woken up, and I'm informed that communication with the space shuttle Columbia has been terminated. I immediately ran in front of the TV screen and then it became clear to me that 16 minutes before the scheduled landing time, contact with the spaceship was lost. From the knowledge I gained on the subject of 'satellite communication', I initially thought that the connection was broken due to the ionization phenomenon that causes the transmission and reception antennas to be covered in a plasma sheath. At altitudes between 50 and 400 km above the earth, there are layers of the ionosphere, which cause the reflection of radio waves and made long-distance communication and transmission possible until the era of satellite communication that began in 1964 with the establishment of the International Satellite Organization. It was also said that contact was lost when the spacecraft was at an altitude of 63 km northeast of Dallas. However, pictures immediately appeared that showed the disintegration of the spaceship, but there was still hope in the heart expressed by Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben Eliyahu who said that Ilan Ramon and the rest of the team of astronauts were wearing space suits during the landing stages and that it is possible that they succeeded in falling despite the enormous height.
I was present two weeks ago at the press conference at the Hilton Coco Beach Hotel in Florida, on the eve of the launch of the space shuttle. Following a professional conference of the deans of the engineering faculties to increase the number of engineering students and their level in the US and around the world. The atmosphere in the hotel was uplifting and there were about 400 guests present and a considerable part of them were Israelis. I saw Ilan Ramon's family and had the privilege of speaking with his father, a Holocaust survivor, who was honored that his son would be chosen as the first Israeli astronaut and also said that when Ilan returns he will ask for amnesty for Yonatan Pollard. The speeches were short and to the point because this is a serious achievement that highlights the strong partnership with the American and Israeli people, and in this difficult time we should be proud of it. I also had interesting conversations with Americans and sat at the same table with Professor Gazit who works in a project with NASA on the effects of weightlessness in the spacecraft on bone structure and meets frequently with Ilan and his team. He told me that Ilan is not only a pilot but also an electronics engineer who graduated from Tel Aviv University. I was surprised that those present did not show any signs of anxiety, but I knew that the transmissions are not one hundred percent safe despite the scientific precision and electronics typical of the US spaceships compared to the Russian ones. In the past, there were only two disasters of the American space agency during the launch of the shuttle in the form of a rocket: when the astronauts perished on the ground and the other during the launch of the Challenger shuttle when the seven astronauts perished, including a Jewish teacher. But when I talked to the Gazit family and other people I refrained from talking about this topic so as not to cloud the atmosphere. I also met a number of Chabad followers there who also contributed to the event. Ilan also took with him into space a picture of a Jewish boy from the Terzenstein ghetto who drew what the world looks like from a man on the moon and other symbols that faithfully represent the Jewish people and Israel. Therefore, the next day, when I passed a few kilometers from the place of the shipment, I stopped in the car to take some photographs of the shipment and made a short note about the shipment program from a local radio station in collaboration with Chabad Hassidim who sang "The Peacemaker in His Heights" and showed enormous enthusiasm. I was very happy that the delivery was successful because it is the most dangerous part of the space shuttle journey. For the shuttle's prolonged stay in space at an altitude of 300 to 400 km and during the landing hours similar to an airplane, NASA has not yet had a single malfunction that ended in disaster, although the Russians had several disasters during the landing phase as well. For the Americans, at most, when the weather conditions in Florida are bad, the shuttle makes another turn and lands at Bundenberg Air Force Base, California, but the weather at Kennedy Base in Florida was excellent.
The moments got longer and I went through all the Israeli channels 1, 2, and 10 that showed the details of the tragic end of the space shuttle Columbia. I moved for short periods of time to the nearby sky station and the BBC to hear the NASA people directly without translation. I even heard the French station TV5 which described the sad events in a much less emotional way than the Israeli and English stations. And broadcast only an interview with a Canadian expert with a solid technical background who explained that there is a high probability that the astronauts perished, and claimed that before they lost radio contact, a number of temperature sensors on the left wing of the shuttle stopped working and it is possible that the disaster happened because Columbia's thermal mantle did not work because at the time of friction with the layers of the atmosphere the temperature can reach 10000 C. He also highlighted two Canadian science experiments carried out by the spacecraft and did not mention the Israeli experiments and explained that all 7 astronauts were scientists and not space tourists.
The other TVs hardly mentioned the space drama. I moved to our stations and it turned out later that during shipping a number of the porcelain blocks of the thermal mantle were damaged by an object in space and it is possible that this was the cause of the malfunction and when the spacecraft disintegrated at an altitude of 63 km the penetration speed was more than four times the average speed. However, the astronauts were very experienced and the probability is very low that there was a human error because up to a height of about 10 km the landing is carried out by automatic mechanisms and only in the final stages of the landing are they manual. I remembered the interviews with the astronauts and with Ilan who showed great confidence and claimed like many others that staying in a space shuttle is much safer than traveling on roads in Israel and the world but the damned statistics determined otherwise and the terrible disaster happened. Ilan's only concern was that this last shipment on 13.1 would also be delayed. For hours, we also heard the serious and professional explanations of Ran Packer, a well-known personality who works to turn marginalized youth into positive paths, a test pilot, the director of the Ministry of Science Avi Har-Evan, the Ilan Ramon family and the managers of the NASA shuttle program on the Columbia mission.

In conclusion, the loss is especially terrible for the families and members of the 7 astronauts, for the people of NASA, for the American people, the Jewish Israelis. Ilan's words especially stuck in my mind that the earth is very calm with the thin layer of its atmosphere that must be protected and that the state of Israel is a very small and beautiful state. The astronauts were the heroes of science and risked and sacrificed their lives for the advancement of humanity and space exploration. Because if we want to develop and progress, efforts must be invested in both science and space exploration, considering that the population of the earth has increased greatly and in order for humanity to exist comfortably, a way must be found to settle people on new planets, which requires a lot of effort. The operations and experiments carried out by Ilan and his team are only initial steps to achieve these goals. The study of science does not come at the expense of helping the hungry and the poor and educating weak populations, as stated in several articles. Canceling the space development plans and the huge budgets needed to carry them out. They will reduce the possibilities of long-term development, cause unemployment to increase and curb human development. Our sages have already said that in the absence of a vision, a people will be disturbed, and space exploration and settlement is one of the most beautiful and promising visions of humanity.

Let's hope that the sacrifice of Ilan and his friends will not be in vain as our people and NASA people said. After a thorough examination and the correction of the technical problems to their depth, the space shuttle operations will resume and scientists will continue to strive to develop more efficient and safer means of transportation to space. Space exploration is also related to the development of solar energy as an energy free from pollution and vital to the planet's well-being and progress. Therefore, people of science and technology in the world and in our country should unite to increase research also in the field of space and adopt the slogan of the Entreprise literature which is also one of the three remaining space shuttles. "Try, seek to find and don't give up."

* Prof. Yaakov Gwen is the dean of the School of Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Communication at the Holon Technological Academic Institute. Prof. Gwen was invited and was present at the space shuttle launch event.

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