Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe and his Axiom Space Ax-1 team are all set for lift-off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket headed for the International Space Station tomorrow. After repeated delays and lengthy preparations, this is a cause for celebration – particularly in Israel.
Israelis, supporters of Israel and people interested in space travel will be rooting for the crew as they follow the progress of the exciting 10-day Rakia mission, which is set to dock at the ISS on Saturday. Rakia, which means Heaven in Hebrew, is the title of the book published with the diary fragments of Israel’s first astronaut – Ilan Ramon – that survived the Space Shuttle Columbia crash in which all seven crew members were killed when the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere.
Ramon, who at 48 was the oldest member of the Columbia crew, was Stibbe’s former commander in the Israel Air Force’s Squadron 117, and a close friend. Ramon’s IAF pilot son, Asaf, was killed at the age of 21 when his F-16 fighter jet crashed during a training exercise over the Hebron Mountains in 2009.
Stibbe was a founding member of the Ilan and Asaf Ramon Foundation in 2010, and members of the Ramon family are due to attend the lift-off in Orlando. In an interview with The Jerusalem Report from Florida, where he was in pre-flight quarantine, Stibbe said Ramon was constantly in his thoughts.
“I think of him often, especially because I visited Ilan in Houston back when he was at NASA’s training facilities before he even went to space. And even though 20 years have passed, the facilities are still the same,” Stibbe said. “I feel that he is still with me.”
Stibbe, who is 64, is part of the first fully private space mission. It is commanded by Spanish-American astronaut and Axiom Space vice president Michael López-Alegría, 63; alongside paying passengers Ax-1 mission pilot and American technology entrepreneur Larry Connor, 72; and Ax-1 mission specialist and Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, 52. Stibbe made a fortune in business projects and is paying the full cost of his participation, estimated to be about $50 million.
He is due to carry out a series of 35 experiments during his time aboard the ISS in a range of fields from astrophysics and agri-tech to medical devices and disease research. He will also bring several items of significance into space, including a glass cube inscribed with a prayer for Israel’s welfare given to him by President Isaac Herzog; a model of the World Peace Bell; an ancient coin recently uncovered in a Judean Desert cave dating back to the time of the Bar-Kochba Revolt; a Hanukkah dreidel and a children’s book, Beauty of the World, written and illustrated by Paul Korr, which he is due to read for children while in space.
The work on board, he said, is purely scientific, but he plans on giving lectures in Hebrew to Israeli schoolchildren in physics and conservation methods.
“Earth is our very own spaceship and needs to be protected,” he said. “I believe that sustainability is crucial. The space station is an amazing model in that aspect: We recycle water, everything is powered by solar energy, we grow plants sustainably and produce calorie-efficient food.”
Regarding the Israeli start-ups such as SpacePharma, whose experiments and technology he is taking with him to space, Stibbe said, “I have tested a lot of the experiments that I will do in space. Some are simple, like wearing a helmet for a period of time, or running software. For the more complicated ones, some Israeli scientists arrived in Houston two weeks ago and helped us run trials. We also went through all the medical tests that we’ll conduct in space to get them right.”
Stibbe and his wife, Ora, have three children. During their time in space, he and the other astronauts can conduct private Zoom calls with their families. In his interview with the Report, Stibbe said his message to the Israeli people is: “No dream is out of reach.” It is a particularly pertinent message to the younger generation as Israel approaches its 74th birthday.