From fighter pilot to astronaut, meet Eitan Stibbe

Stibbe was a close friend of the late Ilan Ramon, and was one of the founders of the Ramon Foundation in his honor.

Eitan Stibbe (photo credit: MARK NEIMAN - GPO)
Eitan Stibbe
(photo credit: MARK NEIMAN - GPO)
Almost two decades after the late Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli astronaut to go to outer space, the second Israeli is set to make a similar journey. But he won’t be the usual kind of astronaut: Eitan Stibbe will become the first Israeli civilian astronaut to blast off towards the stars.
At age 62, Stibbe will be the second oldest person ever to go to space when he launches on an Axiom Space mission in a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station in about a year’s time.
Col. (res.) Stibbe, spent 43 years in the Israel Air Force, flying thousands of hours in Skyhawks, Phantom, and F-16s. He also served as a flight instructor at the Israeli Air Force Flight Academy from 2013-2019.
During the First Lebanon War, he downed four Syrian planes in one sortie: two Sukhoi SU-22s, a MiG-23, and an Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopter. Two days earlier, he helped take down another MiG-23.
After he was discharged from the IAF, he served as an external adviser to Israel Aerospace Industries on its Lavi fighter jet project. According to Haaretz, he later started the LR Group with two former squadron members and made his fortune in security and infrastructure deals in Africa. In 2010, he founded the Vital Capital venture fund that manages economic and social projects in Africa.
Stibbe was also a close friend of Ramon, who died in 2003 on the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere with the entire crew. The two men first met during the Gulf War in 1991 when Ramon was the commander of the 117th Squadron and Stibbe was a reserve pilot.
When Ramon went to Houston, Texas, with his family to prepare for the Columbia launch, Stibbe visited several times and joined his friend during his training. Stibbe and his wife were with the Ramon family at the launch site in Florida when Ramon lifted off.
It was there that Stibbe was first exposed to space exploration and to how space can inspire research in science and education.
 In 2010, seven years after Ramon’s death, Stibbe gathered close friends at his home and with his widow, Rona Ramon, present, they established the Ramon Foundation.
Ran Livne, director-general of the Ramon Foundation, told The Jerusalem Post that the foundation was set up to commemorate loved ones – and instead of bricks and stones, “Rona wanted a foundation that would educate others.”
Livne explained that whenever he approached Rona Ramon, who died almost two years ago, about sending another Israeli to space, “she always said she would love it.”
Four years ago, when he understood that Axiom and SpaceX presented an opportunity to send another Israeli to space, he knew that it was an opportunity that could not be missed.
According to him, the foundation “had to convince him” to go on the mission – and when he accepted, he did so with two conditions: that he won’t go without the blessing of Ilan and Rona’s children, and that the Ramon Foundation would lead and control all aspects of his mission.
“It’s a project that’s quite hard to digest,” Livne said, both because Stibbe will be a civilian astronaut and the Ramon Foundation will be “leading” the mission.
ALTHOUGH STIBBE wasn’t selected as an astronaut and didn’t go through the same screening process for astronauts, he will be carrying out experiments and will also form an educational program for Israeli children that he will conduct while in space.
“When you think of an astronaut, you think of someone who is screened and selected but in the next decade, I anticipate that hundreds of private citizens will go to space. There will be a complete paradigm shift, which is part of a total global paradigm shift of a space industry that will not be backed by governments.
“There are more private players today, who are leading and shifting the global space industry,” Livne said, adding that “it’s very hard to understand this paradigm shift, but Israel is leading it. We are a pioneer in this field.”
And unlike other private astronauts, “he is not flying alone,” Livne said. “He will be flying with the Ramon Foundation: the first time that a non-profit is leading a mission to space.”
As a private citizen, the businessman will pay millions of dollars of his own money for the flight on the SpaceX Dragon Rocket, the costs and all preparations connected to it. But he’s not going for fun and selfies – he will spend his time carrying out experiments.
Stibbe “will be quite different from his partners,” Livne said, explaining that he will get access to several systems onboard the space station such as the robotic arm that is used to carry out maintenance work outside the station, and other modules, as part of a collaboration between the foundation, NASA and Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry.
And although Stibbe’s trip is scheduled for the end of 2021, Livne said that delays are expected, and he might not take off until 2022.