Israel prepares to send its second astronaut to space, a former IDF pilot

“An Israeli proving once again, as we have proved here over the last 72 years, that even the skies are no limit.”

Earth from space (photo credit: NASA)
Earth from space
(photo credit: NASA)
Representatives of the Ramon Foundation headed by Ran Livne, together with President Reuven Rivlin, revealed on Monday the identity of Israel’s second astronaut: 62-year-old Eytan Stibbe, a former fighter pilot and a close friend and colleague of Israel’s first astronaut, the late Ilan Ramon.
Stibbe is expected to blast off at the end of 2021 on a historic scientific mission to the International Space Station (ISS), and thereby create an opportunity for breakthroughs in dozens of Israeli technologies and scientific experiments in space.
The event at the President’s Residence at which his historic mission was announced included Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay, Tal Ramon, son of Ilan and Rona Ramon, and Inbal Kreiss, deputy-general manager of the Space Division at Israel Aerospace Industries.
It has taken more than 17 years to reach a decision to send another Israeli into space after the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle in February 2003, in which Ramon was killed just as the shuttle re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
Stibbe had said to Ramon’s widow, Rona, that he would like to continue her husband’s dream, and that became part of the mutual target of Stibbe, the Ramon family and the Ramon Foundation.
Ramon, who was an Israel Air Force combat pilot who was selected to be the country’s first astronaut, took with him on the ill-fated space shuttle several meaningful items symbolic of Israel and the Jewish people, such as a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a Torah scroll received from Prof. Joachim Yosef – with which he was called to the Torah as a child in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – a mezuzah, an IAF banner and the Israeli flag.
Stibbe, even if he takes similar symbols, will not be a representative of the IAF.
Eytan Stibbe, who will become the second Israeli in space (MARK NEYMAN/GPO)Eytan Stibbe, who will become the second Israeli in space (MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
A spokesperson for the Ramon Foundation said his launch is part of a semi-private initiative.
In wishing Stibbe well, Rivlin said, “Go in peace and return in peace – and don’t forget to wave to us in peace.”
Stibbe recalled that as a boy he had looked up into the clouds and wondered what there was there. Speaking of his mission, he said: “Next year, I will have the opportunity to participate in a mission to the ISS – a fascinating mission in science, education and the exploration of human nature.”
He noted that the ISS “is one of the greatest points of cooperation in the world, where astronauts from many countries live and work together. This is the kind of fellowship that is so vital, particularly at this time as we deal with the coronavirus crisis.”
Tal Ramon, speaking on behalf of the family, said it was a very emotional moment for him because Stibbe, who had become part of the Ramon family, was about to realize its great dream. If his mother was alive, he said, she would spread her arms wide to embrace Stibbe, who was continuing the family’s dream.
Ramon Foundation head Livne, who worked closely with Rona for more than five years, said the mission represented the implementation of her vision to make space accessible to children and young people through the promotion of Israeli innovation in space.
THE INTERNATIONAL mission is the initiative of Axiom Space, which will lead it. On arriving in space, the astronauts will go to the International Space Station, pending NASA approval. Alongside Stibbe, two other private astronauts will participate in the mission.
The Axiom Space mission commander is veteran US astronaut and VP of Axiom Space Michael López-Alegría, who has more than 40 years of aerospace experience. He has flown to space four times and commanded the 14th ISS mission.
The Ramon Foundation together with the Science and Technology Ministry and the Israel Space Agency, will lead all scientific, technological and educational aspects of the Israeli mission.
The foundation was created in 2010 by the Rona Ramon in memory of her husband and their eldest son, Assaf, who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps but was killed in a training exercise in September 2009 when his F-16 crashed.
Rona Ramon’s name was added to the foundation’s title, and to the Ilan and Assaf Ramon Airport in Eilat following her death from pancreatic cancer in December 2018.
Among her initiatives following the death of her husband and son were the Ilan Ramon International Space Conference, held in conjunction with the Israel Space Agency and the Fisher Institute; the Aviators Club – a social-ethical leadership program for 5th-8th grade students, in which operational squadrons of the Israel Air Force adopt schools from peripheral towns and villages – and the Ramon Space Lab program, which gives students a unique opportunity to submit an experiment to the ISS through an annual research-based learning program.
More than 100,000 youngsters have participated in various programs that she initiated with a view to helping them broaden their horizons and reach for the sky. She also founded Beit Assaf, which has been integrated into the Joint Council of Pre-Military Academies.
RIVLIN, WHO knew Rona Ramon well – and was familiar with the intention to launch a second Israeli astronaut into space – said: “This is a day of national celebration and immense pride. An Israeli pilot, with the blue and white flag embroidered on his uniform, is proving once again, as we have proved here over the last 72 years, that the skies are not the limit.”
Addressing Stibbe directly, Rivlin said: “When we look at it from afar, you will be Israel’s representative in a human effort to understand the wonderful workings that allow life on this planet, and uncover the secrets of the universe.
 “This mission to space, for science and research, on behalf of humanity’s unending search for knowledge, for discovery, for understanding, is being launched at a time when humanity is facing one of its greatest challenges. It is a crisis our generation has not known.
“Because of the virus, we have come to realize how many great concepts – like science, medicine and research – can fundamentally shake our lives,” Rivlin said. “We have come to realize how much we do not know, not only about distant planets and infinitely huge galaxies, but even here on our own small planet.
“Dealing with this microscopic, tiny virus, in an effort to find a vaccine, we must work together – scientists from different countries and peoples,” he said. “That is the power of science. It reminds us that we are part of something much bigger that speaks to the human spirit that is within us all.”
Kreiss noted that “this is a rare opportunity to perform and advance extensive ground-breaking experiments in space and on professional multi-disciplinary platforms. These studies will help strengthen our national scientific capabilities, to understand technological processes and improve the quality of life here on Earth, together with strengthening Israel’s standing as a player in the international scene with ongoing space activity.”
Shay expressed pride in his ministry being a partner in the project.