Israel has in recent years become a substantial space power – manufacturing and launching communication and defense satellites, researching deep space phenomena, and even developing technology to help the UN keep track of abandoned spacecraft and space debris.
And while Israeli universities, as well as the IDF and the tech industry, have developed many technologies that are at the forefront of space research today, it took a little push from an organization dedicated to the memory of Israel’s first astronaut to develop the talent that has given Israel the skills and tools it needs to reach for the heavens, according to space entrepreneur pioneer Michael Potter.
In Israel for this week’s 66th Annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Potter said that the Ilan Ramon Scholarship Project, a nonprofit organization he heads, is an unsung hero of the Israeli space effort.
“SpaceIL, the Israeli group that hopes to reach the moon with an unmanned lunar lander in the Google LunarX contest, was started by, among others Jonathan Weintraub, who was a fellow at Space University, on a scholarship provided by the Project,” said Potter. “That year, the University was held in California, and Weintraub got to know Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is seeking to commercialize space travel and got a $900 million investment from Google earlier this year. Inspired, Weintraub started SpaceIL.”
SpaceIL is developing a lunar lander that will reach the moon as part of the Google LunarX contest, in which the company will give away $20 million to the team that can land an unmanned, robotic craft on the moon and carry out several missions — such as taking high-definition video and beaming it back to earth, and exploring the surface of the moon by moving, or sending out a vehicle, that will move 500 meters along the moon’s surface.
Helping promising post-graduate students attend International Space University’s Space Studies Program (SSP) – an intensive nine week program that prepares students to become pioneers in the burgeoning space business – is an important part of the Project’s activities, said Potter. Participation in the SSP is “an opportunity to achieve an international impact with a few select, but very talented, Israeli graduate students. Israel intends to play a growing role in the global leadership and the development of space technologies and activities,” said Potter.
Although only a few students are selected for the program each year, their impact on Israel’s space industry is substantial, said Potter. “One graduate of the SSP program started a company that helped schools and universities conduct space experiments, contracting with companies and science ministries to launch projects on satellites and rockets in order to help schools with their research. They built up the business and today the company is the largest company in the world working in this field.”
In another international success story, Potter said that another SSP graduate – and beneficiary of a Ramon scholarship – is now one of the world’s foremost “astrogeologists,” a discipline that entails studying rocks and soil from other planets.
“He happens to be a specialist in Martian geology, so he was in great demand for media comment and speaking engagements this past summer as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft took high-res photos of Mars’ surface.”
Like the student behind the space experiment firm, the Israeli astrogeologist built up connections and relationships at Space U – creating an ecosystem that might not have existed otherwise.
The Project is endorsed by Rona Ramon, widow of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who was killed in 2003 in the Space Shuttle Columbia mission, which came to a fatal end when it exploded.
“It was not easy for her, considering that tragedy, and the loss of her son in 2009,” an Israel Air Force pilot who was killed in a plane crash, said Potter. “Finally we convinced her to support the project in 2010, and since then we have sent dozens of students to Space U.”
Until last year, the Project was self-funded; now the Israeli government has joined in the funding as well.
Among other things, Space University’s objective is to help develop the commercial side of space exploration – an area that Potter is well acquainted with. Head of US-based investment firm Paradigm Ventures, Potter was one of the negotiators who helped hammer out the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty i between the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges. That treaty, he said, was the basis of subsequent treaties on space arms deployment. Potter was also director of Odyssey Moon, the first team to sign up for the LunarX contest; in 2012, Odyssey Moon teamed up with SpaceIL to participate in the contest.
Perhaps the greatest space-oriented event to take place in the coming year – besides the current International Astronautical Congress (IAC), the largest annual event in the space industry – is the imminent hosting of Space U’s summer program at the Technion, scheduled for July 2016. “Our Ramon Foundation scholars are making themselves known at Space U, and administrators of the program have been paying attention to Israel’s accomplishments in space,” said Potter. “Israel has been having an important impact on the heavens, and Space U has chosen to locate its program here because of the country’s expertise. There are a lot more innovations to come in space travel and industry, and I believe a lot of them will be developed in Israel.”