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Ten years since the Columbia disaster - from the book The Crash: Chapter 6: The good ones to fly

How did the idea of ​​sending an Israeli astronaut into space on an American shuttle come about? The episode is based on interviews with current President Shimon Peres, former Air Force Commander Eitan Ben Eliyahu, and former Space Agency Director Avi Har-Evan.

From the book "The Crash - The Columbia Story of Mission 107-STS" by Avi Blizovsky and Yefa Shir-Raz, published by Kinneret, Zamora-Beitan:

The cover of the book "The Crash"
The cover of the book "The Crash"

On December 11, 1995, during Prime Minister Shimon Peres' visit to Washington, United States President Bill Clinton and Peres sat in the Oval Office of the White House and talked. After they finished discussing the important matters on the agenda, the conversation drifted to trivial matters. The atmosphere in the room was pleasant. While rolling things out, they came to the topic of space. "Why not add an Israeli astronaut to the American space program?" suddenly threw a prize.

"Really why not?" President Clinton replied.

Guest astronauts from different countries of the world have participated in the American space program for years. Until 1998, no Israeli pilot took part in it. The reason was ridiculously simple. No one in Israel thought of it!
"I have always believed that the future is in scientific cooperation," says former Prime Minister Shimon Peres in an interview he gave us after the disaster. "Science and technology have no limits, and they are the source of the new human abundance. Information means power and the ability to deal with the flow and changes that life entails and with the challenges of the future. The collection of information changes over the years. Once upon a time, information could only be gathered with the help of the eyes, ears and sense of smell. This information was limited. Then they invented the glasses, without which many people were visually impaired. Over time, man saw a little farther and more clearly. He invented the microscope and was able to see down with it. Then he invented the telescope and used it to study what is above. But both the down and the up were very limited. Even today, our information is still flawed and partial, and we are constantly trying to get to the bottom of the subject or the heights of creation. The desire to reach space is simply a desire to get to know better what has disappeared from our eyes, from the telescope and the microscope. And instead of putting your eyes to the telescope, maybe it's better for the person himself to become a telescope, and then he will see to great heights. As early as 74, I thought that Israel should acquire or develop a satellite of the Horizon type (which was eventually developed in Israel over a decade later). Before one of the late Yitzhak Rabin's trips to the United States, I suggested that he purchase a satellite there. Unfortunately, he did not agree to this, and this was one of the causes of the argument between us. In that conversation with Clinton, I thought it was an opportunity to give Israel the ability to see things from a height that we didn't know. Such an ability has both scientific and intelligence importance. Obviously, if we were to propose an intelligence program, the Americans would not accept it, but when the capability exists, it can be used for both purposes."
Following the conversation, Clinton and Peres issued a joint announcement. At the press conference to conclude Peres' visit, the President announced that the United States intends to assist Israel in researching water resources and protecting the environment in the Middle East, and for this purpose it will train an Israeli astronaut who will be able to participate in space-based experiments on the subject, and will attach him to a space shuttle.

The joint agreement gave rise to a meeting between Avi Har-Evan, the head of the Israeli Space Agency, and the head of NASA at the time, Daniel Goldin. The two discussed the issue and decided that if an experiment was found that would contribute to the study of water resources and the Earth's environment, and would be acceptable to both NASA and Israel, the American space agency would be ready to fly such an experiment, and to train an Israeli astronaut to operate the experiment. In October 96, they signed an agreement for cooperation between the agencies, which reads: "As part of the agreement, the United States will train Israeli astronauts to participate in these experiments. As part of the effort, Israel will appoint a candidate for an astronaut who will be trained as a payload specialist, to conduct scientific research by the Israeli Space Agency with the approval of NASA."

"The emphasis in the agreement between NASA and the Israeli Space Agency was actually more on the experiment and less on the astronaut," said Ilan Ramon in an interview he gave us in June 2002. "The idea was to create cooperation in space between the American space program and the Israeli space program. The meaning of the agreement was that NASA recognizes that Israel has a great deal to offer, and that the collaboration between the scientists of the two agencies will not be a one-off. I believe that there will be many Israeli experiments that will fly in space, and I hope that this is the beginning of a fruitful cooperation.

However, despite the agreement, the cooperation proceeded lazily. The main reason for this was that the Israeli Space Agency did not have the money required to finance the project. In the same year Major General (Res.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu was appointed to the position of Air Force Commander. "Even when I was on the verge of taking office, a plan was formed in my mind to bring the Air Force into the field of space," he says in the interview he gave us,
"I could literally see before my eyes how the field could be promoted. I planned to bring together under the umbrella of the Air Force all the activities in the field of space that were scattered among the forces in the IDF, to create a structural change in the soldier, to develop a special branch that would deal with the issue and to determine work practices. When I happened to hear about the conversation between Clinton and Peres, I decided to take the initiative. I approached Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the Chief of Staff at the time, and presented the idea to him officially. I suggested to him that I contact NASA directly. Shakh approved the initiative, and I decided to implement it immediately. On my first visit to Washington, I went to meet with Dan Goldin, who was then the head of NASA. I saw in front of me a nice Jewish guy in a suit and cowboy boots, who ignited my imagination with thoughts about searching for aliens and passenger planes that in 20 years will fly through space in half an hour from one end of the world to the other. Thus, my desire to introduce the field to the Air Force met with the opportunity, and the decision to train an Israeli pilot for the mission was made."

According to Ben Eliyahu, there were quite a few important reasons for the need to train an Israeli pilot for the role of an astronaut who will participate in the American space program. "The first and most important reason was that the new conditions created in the Middle East during the last 15 years created a vital and urgent need to make some changes in the security doctrine of the State of Israel. Since the establishment of the state, it has been threatened by neighboring countries. The ongoing conflict with the Arab states, which occasionally erupted in violence, had a very predictable character. Once every ten years or so, such an outbreak occurred. The conflict then had the character of a meeting between armies along the recognized borders, and mainly in two arenas, the Golan Heights and the Sinai. Based on this expected scenario, Israel's entire combat concept was built - armored forces, air forces for assistance and deterrence and to secure Israel's skies, an intelligence alert system that was 'tailored' to the distance and the type of information that needed to be collected to warn against scenarios of troop withdrawal or advance, etc. Until 82, these scripts demonstrated success with great efficiency, which resulted in very good results and also yielded peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. But over time, the conflict, which did not end, took on a different character. Instead of a threat of a clash between two armies, two new threats arose. One was terrorism on a very wide scale and with great intensity, which took on the dimensions of strategic terrorism, terrorism that has an impact on political developments and not only on marginal events on the side of the conflict. The second threat was the entry of ballistic missiles and non-conventional weapons into the Middle East, which became the Arab countries' answer to their inferiority complex in the battlefield until the 2000s. The non-conventional weapons and the ballistic missiles directly threatened the Israeli home front and extended to enormous ranges, reaching even up to 2500-XNUMX kilometers. The arenas that were previously limited to the Golan and the Sinai have expanded to hundreds and perhaps even thousands of kilometers. Today, if in western Iraq, in western Iran, in the remote areas of Syria or in Libya preparations are being made to launch missiles at Israel, those targets immediately become a relevant arena. One must know what is happening there and be able to act there. And it turns out, that in these ranges, there is no way to observe, track and listen, and in the worst case, to act there, except through the mediation of a platform located in space. In a figurative way, one can say that if in the past it was possible to be satisfied with Hermon as the 'eyes of the state', today, in order for the State of Israel to have eyes, ears and a system of control and control over the arenas of interest to it, it has to be located in space."

The second reason is not directly related to security, but is no less critical to the existence of the state.
"David Ben-Gurion said that the answer to Israel's inferiority in quantity, we should give by superiority in quality, both in tools and in personnel," he quotes. "The State of Israel has engraved this principle on its flag, and has even excelled in it so far. In order to maintain this principle, it is necessary to set before the Israeli society, before the academic, research, scientific and industrial community, each time anew goals and objectives to which it will strive. In this way, we will maintain our technological, scientific and quality superiority. Unfortunately, the eagerness and priority that characterized the youth to study the subject of aviation, has been forgotten in recent years due to the fact that alternative avenues have been created, such as computers and communication. As a result, there is a need to give impetus to this eagerness and breathe new life into it. The need is not only security, but also economic and scientific."

Another reason for the need for astronaut training, according to him, is the fact that a unique and focused mission such as this may magnetize the Israeli public to it and create an atmosphere of unity and cooperation.

"The clearest example of this is the American space program, and especially the Apollo program, which both symbolized the struggle for the conquest of space and was ultimately one of the factors that decided the Cold War. In addition, it made a huge contribution to the scientific and technological development of humanity, and all this only due to the fact that it was defined as a specific task that focused the entire American nation around it. Such a focused mission also makes it possible to recruit people who will dedicate their best efforts to it, and sometimes even their lives."

Ben Eliyahu's appeal to play provided the Israel Space Agency with a source of state funding for the astronaut launch project. "SLA did not have the money necessary to finance the project and keep the astronaut and his family in the United States for an extended period of uncertain duration, nor mechanisms for sorting according to NASA's criteria," explains Har-Evan. "Since the Air Force had a very large pool of people who met such criteria, I agreed to the recommendation of the Air Force Commander, that the astronaut be an Air Force man. I met Ilan Ramon when he came to me after Eitan ben Eliyahu recommended him as the chosen candidate. I had a long conversation with him, and later also with Yitzhak Mayo, and I got the impression that they both fit. From that moment until the time of departure, I maintained a close relationship with Ilan, which continued, through e-mail, even during the flight. The bonds of friendship forged between us went far beyond official ties."

On the last day of the assignment, Ilan Ramon wrote a letter in English by e-mail to Peres, in which he thanked him for the opportunity given to him thanks to the agreement that Peres signed with Clinton, and for the vision that made it possible to carry out an idea that was not considered possible before.

Despite the tragic end, says Peres, the project contributed a lot to Israeli science. "The mission in which Ilan participated first of all contributed to Israel's image. The participation of an Israeli astronaut in a space flight is a precedent that was previously difficult to break. Second, the experiment he participated in, the dust experiment, is very important for research, and brought up important information. Beyond that, the project had another, albeit unintended, result. Not only Ramon discovered the space. The space also revealed Ramon, his special personality. If it weren't for this mission, we wouldn't have known we had such a man. A man so great in his qualities and so full of talents. Beyond the important experiment he carried out, Ilan also united the people and gave them a feeling of culmination, of heroism and ambitions. Even if this was not the purpose of sending an Israeli astronaut, this was the result."


the back cover

Was the organizational culture of NASA in its editors (chapter from the book)

3 תגובות

  1. If the idea was so successful, why aren't there more Israeli astronauts?

    The answer probably lies in the understanding that in order to conduct an experiment in space it is not necessary to finance the training of Israeli astronauts in the United States for years.
    (Salaries, family support, pension, expenses and more)
    They also have nothing to do with acquiring knowledge and technology of ballistic missiles and training astronauts.

    The luxury of unnecessary expenses is reserved for wealthy powers only and the State of Israel is not like that.

    Acknowledging this fact does not harm the memory of Ilan Ramon, but casts doubt on the ability to make correct decisions by those who made the decisions and those who did not protest.

  2. Ilan Ramon was an amazing person and there is no doubt that he fulfilled his mission perfectly. He united us all and gave a deep and new dimension to Jewish identity - through the symbolic objects he took with him into space: the Air Force emblem, his father's Kiddush cup, a mezuzah, a painting by the boy Peter Gintz from the Triesenstadt concentration camp who drew what the Earth looks like from the moon - and especially - a tiny Torah scroll - which belonged to Prof. Yehoichin Yosef - who headed the experimental team on behalf of Tel Aviv University. Prof. Yosef received this book as a Bar Mitzvah gift - which he received from Rabbi Shimon Dasberg - in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Rabbi Dasberg taught Yosef to read his parasha in this Sefer Torah - and even organized an entire ceremony - with the participation of all the people of the barracks. When Rabbi Dasberg decided to part with his most precious object - this tiny Torah scroll - he asked Yosef: "Take care of it, and promise me that you will tell the story." Later, Ilan Ramon saw the Torah scroll inside a tiny ark in Prof. Yosef's house and asked him to tell him the story. As the son of Holocaust survivors, Ramon was moved by the story of the bar mitzvah in the concentration camp, and asked for permission to take the Torah book with him into space - and promised to tell the story "to the whole world." The Ark of the Covenant - which was not taken into space - survived, and is displayed in the Shlomo Hall Museum of Jewish Art in Jerusalem.

    And a small final point, in one of the newspapers that were published near the Columbia shuttle disaster, a story was published under the title "A child's idea" - in which it was said that the idea of ​​sending an Israeli astronaut into space was concocted in the mind of the son of an Israeli diplomat who was on mission in the United States. After a visit to the space museum, the son asked his father - why there is no Israeli astronaut - and the father decided to pass the brilliant idea on - and from here things will turn into a conversation between Shimon Peres and the President of the United States - but still - it is also important to mention the boy!!!

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