Israel’s second astronaut - the dawn of a new tomorrow

Astronaut Eytan Stibbe will fly to the International Space Station in 2021.

Eytan Stibbe at the President’s Residence (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Eytan Stibbe at the President’s Residence
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
During Israeli Space Week in January 2020, researchers, scientists, educators, and space fans avidly discussed the possibility of sending a second Israeli astronaut into space. After Ilan Ramon tragically perished in the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003, this hope was short-lived. Often the topic was brought up, but due to budget and time constraints, and the lack of willing or talented enough individuals to embark upon such a mission seemed scarce and unlikely. Yet, through all this Israel persevered with its newest hope for the far-reaches beyond Earth’s fragile atmosphere – and all through commercialized spaceflight no less.
In front of a minimal audience, President Reuven Rivlin, along with members of the Ramon Foundation, the Science and Technology Ministry, the Israeli Space Agency and Israel Aerospace Industries, on November 16 welcomed and declared Eytan Stibbe as Israel’s second astronaut.
Stibbe is a former Israel Air Force colonel, and has participated in important missions for 43 years. Stibbe is sort of an Israeli Superman – if there ever was one. During a particular dangerous rendezvous, he shot down four Syrian enemy planes on a single mission. After retiring from the Air Force, he founded the venture capital fund, Vital Capital, which benefits impoverished countries in Africa. He is married to Ora, a therapist, who founded along with her husband Anatta Ltd., a social benefit company to help Arabs and Israelis in the city of Lod. Together they have three children and three grandchildren. During his announcement at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, he finished his speech by congratulating his mother on her 95th birthday.
Stibbe is also a founder and volunteer of The Ramon Foundation, dedicated to Ramon, who was his former colleague and Air Force commander. Stibbe will travel to space and dedicate his flight hours to the Ramon Foundation, the first astronaut to be sent on behalf of a nonprofit, private organization. Stibbe, 63, will also be the second-oldest astronaut in space, after John Glenn, 77, and Franklin Story Musgrave, the second oldest (61). He holds a master’s degree in business administration from the European University in Belgium. He will be joined by Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who has clocked four prior space missions, and two other private astronauts on the flight.
As part of the plan, Stibbe will undergo rigorous and intense training in the US, Russia and Germany, and is slated to take off around October 2021 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SpaceX rocket, in an agreement with Axiom. Stibbe will pay a hefty sum of $50 million to accommodate his flight and stay aboard the International Space Station, being a private astronaut. He will also bring Israeli science experiments as part of his cargo onboard and hold a children’s space outreach program, and is scheduled to spend between 10-15 days aboard the station.
When speaking of the upcoming mission, Stibbe added that “in another year I will have the opportunity to embark on a mission to the ISS – a fascinating journey of science, education, and humanities research. The ISS is one of the largest collaborative missions in the world, where astronauts from several countries, work and learn together – a unity that is so needed right now, especially during these challenging times of dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.” Rivlin lauded Stibbe’s bravery and courage, adding that he is “one of the greatest and first pioneers in the private industry of spaceflight.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Stibbe’s achievements as well noting that “today is a remarkable day for the State of Israel, we are glad and filled with Zionist pride. We’ve written a new chapter in our Zionist story, and as a nation have gone through a particularly difficult journey to reach this point.” Stibbe reminisced about his earliest experiences contemplating the vastness of the Earth and space. “As a boy, I sat on dark nights looking up at the stars. I waited patiently to see a falling star, and thought to myself what is out there - beyond what I see with my eyes? As a pilot, I longed for the wide aerial dimensions, high speeds, maneuvering between the clouds, feeling the G-forces, seeing a wholly new point of view as I flew over land and sea. But I longed to leave the atmosphere, to really do so. That possibility came to me when Ilan took me to visit NASA’s training center in Houston. Ten years prior, Ilan had commanded the 117th Squadron that I had been flying in for over 30 years.” “In January 2003, alongside family and friends, we soaked up the sheer power, intense heat, and breathtaking sight of the Columbia space shuttle’s launch toward its final mission. How much depth, courage, and resources does one person need to depart the globe, the very planet that contains them? Gravity is but an innocent power, simply hovering in the vastness,” he said.
In parting, he called upon the Israeli public to work toward preserving and taking care of the environment, noting mindfully that “it is within our power to maintain our beautiful planet for the sake of future generations.”
Lastly, he thanked family and friends, as well as volunteers and staff of the Ramon Foundation, which today also commemorates Ilan’s wife, Rona, its founder who passed away after a difficult battle with cancer two years ago. The foundation is a nonprofit and offers scholarships and after school programs that encourage children to pursue STEM and space-related careers, and is helping prepare Stibbe for the upcoming mission.
“I love my family, and thank them for the love and trust they place in me. I wish us all luck,” he said with a silent smile.
Commercialized spaceflight is expanding and Elon Musk’s SpaceX isn’t the sole contender anymore. Just last year, former NASA head Charles Bolden, who heads the Bolden Group, and consults with companies that wish to pursue commercial space exploration spoke to The Jerusalem Report about his hopes for the expansion of the field. Nanoracks is one example, and has invented plenty of devices that are now aboard the space station, and helps people build CUBESATS or small nanosatellites. Axiom Space, on which Bolden is a board member, recently won a contract from NASA to provide the first commercial space station. By commercializing spaceflight, Axiom hopes to bring about a revolution and propel humanity toward the far-reaches of space. Axiom is spearheading this project and taking responsibility for launching Stibbe’s team – crowned Ax-1 – aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, and is slated for October 2021.
Currently, Axiom has an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to train nongovernment astronauts, including perhaps Israeli ones, Bolden told the Report in January 2020. “I think there will definitely be another Israeli astronaut in the future, and sooner rather than later,” he said then.
Alas, truer words could not have been spoken, and next year, shedding some of the darkness that the coronavirus pandemic has wrecked on the world, Israel is at the forefront of making the world a bit brighter.
One can only hope for the dawn of a new tomorrow.