Making history: Eytan Stibbe shoots for the stars

“All the experiments Eytan tested in space ran according to plan, enabling us to deal with a whole spectrum of new scientific issues. That’s extremely unique.”

 Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe floats onboard the station. (photo credit: AXIOMSPACE/NASA)
Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe floats onboard the station.
(photo credit: AXIOMSPACE/NASA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

3, 2, 1…liftoff! The energy on the live broadcast was palpable as second-Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe blasted off to space aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule with the rest of his Ax-1 crew. Thousands watched Stibbe make his way to the terminal and Launch Pad 39a - which is where Neil Armstrong first set forth to the Moon. Crowds cheered and many held bated breaths as the capsule quickly left Earth’s atmosphere and made its way toward its final destination: the International Space Station, where Stibbe would be the first Israeli and third Jewish astronaut (after NASA astronauts Garrett Reisman and Jessica Meir) to ever step foot - nay, float around its corridors. “It’s the first time we can speak Hebrew aboard the ISS,” he said, shortly after docking. The mission was also the first private-manned mission, sponsored by Axiom Space, to send non-government-trained astronauts beyond Earth’s reaches. 

And spending Passover aboard the station wasn’t something Stibbe planned either. With a dose of holiday cheer, Rabbi Zvi Konikov of Chabad of the Space & Treasure Coasts, gladly packed Stibbe a case of shmurah matzah, a haggadah, and four small cartons of grape juice to drink during the Seder night. Celebrating Passover aboard the station is “a whole new thing,” Stibbe quipped during a press conference prior to his flight. He also took with him a variety of other patriotic items, including a flag of the State of Israel, a dreidel, a ten-shekel coin, a nano-sized version of the Bible, an Israeli Air Force flight pin, and more. 

Stibbe’s main mission centered around running a variety of different experiments designed by Israeli startups and research institutions. And in a new record for an Israeli astronaut, he completed a whopping 35 different experiments including creating the first optical lens out of fluid, measuring brain waves in space, researching various diseases - including Alzheimer’s and children's leukemia - growing chickpea plants in space, wearing a special vest designed to protect astronauts against cosmic radiation, deploying a nano-antennae in space, and photographing atmospheric lightning. 

Before Israeli children climbed into bed, he read them a bedtime story, Paul Cora’s "What a Beautiful World,” gave lectures on microgravity, and spoke to Israeli high school students in Hebrew and Arabic; the sound of his calm voice reverberating off the space station’s walls. “I wouldn’t mind staying here for another month,” he quipped to cameras as he provided a guided filmed tour of his quarters, ahead of his return back to the blue planet. He even had time to play a song in Hebrew, written by Ramon’s surviving son, Tal, to his father, titled “The Future is Late.”

Perhaps, one of the most touching points of his mission was when Stibbe first entered the space station, all smiles, the flag of the State of Israel proudly emblazoned on the shoulder of his space suit. When first reporting back to mission command, he spoke fondly of his flight and thanked everyone in Israel for their good wishes and support. And then the unthinkable happened: a tiny stuffed octopus doll floated by, and Stibbe quipped in Hebrew: “my granddaughter insisted I take her stuffed octopus with me,” and chuckled. Then reminiscent of many El Al pilots, prior to touching down in the Holyland, he added: “We’re currently hovering above the African continent and are close to the Israeli coastline, which we might be able to see through the clouds.”

 Eytan Stibbe and Inbal Kreiss at NASA's Houston facilities. (credit: AXIOMSPACE/NASA) Eytan Stibbe and Inbal Kreiss at NASA's Houston facilities. (credit: AXIOMSPACE/NASA)

On April 25, excitement was in the air as he climbed into the Dragon capsule after spending 17-days onboard. His expected return was delayed multiple times due to storms in the Florida region, but the Ax-1 team managed to splash down safely in the Atlantic Ocean on April 25. Many watched and held their breaths as Stibbe’s descent began; especially when it came to re-entering Earth’s atmosphere where temperatures can reach a whopping 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius). That is where, 20 years prior, Ramon and the rest of the Columbia shuttle crew burst into flames. 

Once the parachutes opened, the Dragon capsule glided smoothly through the clouds until it hit the water. SpaceX teams carefully helped extract the passengers - who had just spent over two-weeks in a microgravity environment - safely to ground. A physician - who was specially equipped to treat astronauts upon their return to Earth - carefully and briefly inspected each crew member. A camera showed Stibbe signing in Hebrew that “no dream is impossible,” a proud grin on his face, as he was helped to his feet by two female SpaceX employees. 

“I’m jealous of Eytan,” said the Managing-Director of the Israel Space Agency during the landing event at the Check Point Software Technologies office in Tel Aviv, which was sponsored by the Ramon Foundation, “he’s done what few have done before. Oron told the Report post-landing: “This mission will affect and drive Israel’s young NewSpace ecosystem. Israeli space tech startups are creating new technologies that have now been tested in space, and that will help boost those companies’ revenues, and our young economy. We’re making firsts in STEM and space education too,” he added. While ISA is still trying to foresee the ramifications of the first Israeli commercial space flight, the future is bright, reiterated Oron. “All the experiments Eytan tested in space ran according to plan, enabling us to deal with a whole spectrum of new scientific issues. That’s extremely unique.”

Inbal Kreiss, who chose which experiments Stibbe took with him to the station, and oversaw part of the Beresheet mission, told the Report that the mission is far from over. “It’s only the beginning of our actual mission - analyzing the data from these experiments. This mission was filled with data from numerous disciplines - astrophysics, optics, psychology, medicine, genetics, and more.” And several international bodies partnered on the research, she added, showcasing the mission’s importance, and the fact that more companies are now looking to create dual-use technologies - not only for use on Earth, but for space as well. 

“That sense of entrepreneurship and innovation will continue - even after this day is long over,” she smiled, before Stibbe splashed down off the Florida coast. “In the beginning, we never dreamed that we would make so many scientific breakthroughs, we’ve accomplished so much more than we thought.” Kreiss, upon Stibbe’s request, traveled with him to Florida and Houston, and served as a liaison point between the Israel Space Agency, the Ramon Foundation, and NASA as he underwent training - whether in antigravity chambers or testing out the experiments. She helped him navigate unsteady bureaucratic waters, while choosing (and pushing) for even more experiments to join Stibbe on the space station. Those experiments went from 25 to 44 to a final 35. “Every time NASA told me ‘no’ - that we had too many experiments onboard, or didn’t have enough resources to make it work, it gave me the drive to push harder. It just requires more effort, and I believe that there’s always a way to make something happen if you believe. I think that’s the same message I would pass along to women, who want to succeed in this industry,” she added.

And as for the next Israeli astronaut? “It will happen sooner rather than later,” Oron smiled. Added Kreiss: “We hope that the next Israeli astronaut will be female. It reminds me of when we worked on Beresheet, it created an effect and impact that inspired others. “Who knows?” Said Oron, “It might be sooner than we think.”