For an education that's out of this world

The visiting president of the International Space University speaks to the 'Post.'

science guy 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
science guy 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Michael Simpson and his wife are both involved in things celestial: She is an American Baptist pastor, while he is president of the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France. One needn't apologize for never having heard of such a "niche" institution; few people have. But those interested in space industries - and not necessarily in becoming astronauts - will probably know about the 21-year-old institution. Making his first visit to Israel recently to attend ceremonies marking the sixth anniversary of the death of Israel's first astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon in the Columbia shuttle disaster, Simpson told The Jerusalem Post that he was glad to finally come here. A handful of Israelis are either taking a one-year ISU master's degree or have participated in its intensive summer programs. In 1985, he recalled, three young space enthusiasts established the Space Generation Foundation, aimed at helping foster a sense of community for people born since the start of the Space Age. One of their most popular ideas was to establish a space university, which in fact came into existence with initial funding from the European, Canadian, Chinese, French, German and other space agencies. (The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] has since become very supportive.) "It began with only 11 students. The city of Strasbourg bid for the location of the campus and won," he recalled. THE UNIVERSITY'S main aim is to train leaders of the emerging global space community by offering a core curriculum covering all disciplines related to space enterprises, including space science and engineering, systems engineering, space policy and law, business and management, and space and society. The ISU also serves as a neutral international forum for the exchange of ideas on challenging issues related to space. Interacting with people from a variety of academic, cultural and national backgrounds, with varied approaches to problem solving and occasionally conflicting objectives prepares ISU students for the multicultural environment of the world space community. CURRENTLY, THERE are 50 or 60 MA students, with over 100 attending the very intensive nine-week summer programs. Now a master's of business administration curriculum has opened as well. There are already some 2,700 male and female graduates. "Americans are the largest single nationality," said Simpson, who was born in the US and had a long academic career on three continents before he became ISU president in 2004. He was born in central Pennsylvania, "a very small town with more trout in the stream running through than people." He grew up in New York State. A graduate of Fordham University, a US Navy officer and a lecturer in political science, international relations, business management, international law, leadership and economics in the US, France, China, the UK and Australia, Simpson has also been president of Utica College in New York and of the American University in Paris. Although an American citizen, he speaks fluent French, which he learned in high school. The ISU's official language is English, even though it is located in France. As ISU president, Simpson has added curriculum on satellite operations, space management challenges, personal space flight, entrepreneurship, space policy and prospects for commercial activity in space. Most students want to learn or come from marketing departments in space-related civilian companies whose products range from satellites to launchers. "It is very rare to go to a space conference without a lot of ISU people presenting lectures," said Simpson. The largest single nationality is American, but they still represent only a fifth of the graduates, so "there is no national majority in any of the classes." One of the Israelis who attended ISU is Dr. Eran Schenker, an aerospace physician and space biologist whose research focuses on the effect of space flight on mammalian fetal development (he is also the son of retired Hadassah University Medical Center gynecologist Prof. Joseph Schenker). This graduate of Ben-Gurion University School of Medicine and the founder and director of the Israeli Aerospace Medicine Institute participated in a special summer program where scientists worked on an operational project. "I was there in 1996, together with 128 multidisciplinary scientists from around the world, to plan a medical clinic on Mars. This team project involved intense research by international graduate students and young space professionals, who were asked to solve complex problems by working together in an intercultural environment." Schenker predicts that by 2020, flights will be made to Mars and certainly back to the moon, where no astronaut has stepped in four decades. "It will undoubtedly be an international team," he told The Post. The space physician himself does not aim to land on another planet. "I have my two feet firmly on the ground," he said. But he would be happy to participate in preparations for the medical clinic he helped plan. "The ISU not only teaches, but is excellent at networking. Besides friends from the Israel Defense Forces, the group I am closest to is from ISU," says Schenker. He believes that Simpson's first-ever visit to Israel and his numerous meetings here will lead to more Israelis attending ISU. TUITION FOR the summer program is 17,500 euros (including food and lodging), and for the master's degree 25,000 euros a year, not including room and board in rented apartments (there are no dormitories). Since the ISU offers scholarships and many students' tuition is paid for partially or wholly by space agencies and space-related companies, Israelis are able to manage. Eighty percent of its students receive some kind of support. The teaching equipment, noted Simpson, is expensive. ISU brings in international instructors, coming to lecture in a special field for a week or month or more. The university's resident faculty consists of eight people. The campus is a large custom-made building that includes two large amphitheaters, classrooms, Web casting and smart-classroom technologies. Simpson said the Israelis have had no problem with students from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority - or even with Iranian Muslims. Israel, said Simpson, has carved out an extraordinary niche for itself in the space field. Its space industry has great expertise in relatively small, high-value satellites no bigger than an office refrigerator. Not many countries have developed communications satellites from their first steps to the integration phase; instead, they subcontract substantial parts, he said. "We don't teach national secrets. We teach about the evolution of the space program, the development of new programs and new ways for business to get involved. We are not a school for astronauts, although one studied with us. About 25% of summer and degree students are women; if they have good training, women are in high demand by space industries, many of which have good day-care programs." The serious downturn in the world economy, he continued, is making everybody more conservative. "Lots of it is psychological, but there is still a large bloc of business for important space companies; satellites have to be replaced and launches completed." While US President Barack Obama originally dismissed further space exploration, more recently he said it would continue. "It will be interesting to see how the administration in Washington deals with space. I think we will continue to explore the moon and also go to Mars. I wouldn't mind a good race with other countries, as competition is good. There are significant capabilities in China, and Russia could do it if it wanted to." Simpson added that he "would love to go to the moon. I am a little less tempted by sub-orbital flights. Space will become more accessible; already there are people considering a honeymoon on the moon." The Virgin Galactic company, which is organizing future passenger flights, has a list of 40,000 people, nearly 1,000 of whom have provided a down payment. Companies with other approaches to suborbital flight may test their own ships by the end of this year, he said, "and projected prices will go down." NASA gives great attention to its astronauts who died in action, and holds annual individual memorial ceremonies. ISU also has a hall where these individuals are commemorated. "I never had privilege of knowing Ilan Ramon. But I know his widow Rona; she has a lot of courage. I saw parts of his flight log that were preserved." Simpson came especially for a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Columbia crash. "Israeli alumni at ISU asked me to go to Israel for this, and as I had not been here before, I decided to come. I wanted a chance to honor a person who gave his life for something that is very important, and thank Israeli supporters for all they have done to raise ISU scholarship funds."