Israel will send an astronaut to space next year, for just the second time in the country’s history, officials announced on Monday at a ceremony at the president’s residence.
Eytan Stibbe, a former fighter pilot, is due to take off in late 2021 for a mission of just over a week on the International Space Station.
“This is a day of national joy, and great pride,” said President Reuven Rivlin. “An Israeli pilot with a blue-and-white flag embroidered on his shoulder will prove once again, as we have been showing here for 72 years, that even the sky isn’t our limit.”
The son of Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed during his 2003 mission, took part in the press conference at the President’s Residence where the announcement was made Monday.
Tal Ramon watched as senior staff of the Ramon Foundation, which was set up to commemorate his father, and government figures revealed that they have been working together for months to arrange an Israeli role in the mission.
Ramon, a former Israeli fighter pilot, was a shuttle payload specialist on the STS-107 mission of Space Shuttle Columbia. He was killed, along with the other six crew members, when the shuttle blew up on February 1, 2003, just 16 minutes before they were due to land back on Earth.
Ramon was Stibbe’s commander in the Israel Air Force.
The upcoming launch will put Stibbe on the International Space Station for 200 hours, which he will use to conduct a series of unprecedented experiments that are intended to advance Israeli technologies and scientific developments by researchers and startups.
Stibbe will travel on a shuttle launched from Florida at the end of 2021, and will soon start his training, which will take him to the United States, Germany and Russia. The millionaire is funding the trip himself and, at 62, he will be one of the oldest astronauts on record.
“As a child, on dark nights I looked up to the stars and wondered what there is beyond what I saw,” Stibbe told the press conference in Jerusalem. He said that as a pilot he got the chance to see the skies, and then became excited by the prospect of space travel because of his close friend Ramon.
He said: “It takes much depth and strength to be able to release ourselves from that which ties us down, to leave gravity.
Stibbe recalled that he was with the Ramon family during the January 2003 launch.
Tal Ramon spoke of the ties that bind his family and Stibbe’s. Upon taking to the podium he lifted up his hands jubilantly, saying this is what his mother Rona, who died in 2018, would have done to celebrate the moment.
“I’m very excited because I know if my mother were standing here she would put up her hands in victory like this, and speak very proudly about our friend, a friend I remember from my very first memories,” he said.
The Stibbe family “escorted us through the years through everything we went through, the good and the bad, and their family has become our family.”
He said it was very moving that Stibbe, a founder of the Ramon Foundation, had chosen to make this “contribution” to the citizens of Israel.
During the press conference, Rivlin addressed Stibbe and emphasized the role that his mission will play in enthusing Israeli kids about science and technology.
“You’ll conduct a series of experiments in Israeli technologies, some of which were developed by Israeli boys and girls,” the president said. “You will be the messenger of those brilliant minds, present and future generations of excellent Israeli research.”
Last year, astronaut Jessica Meir, whose father was Israeli, paid tribute to the Jewish state from space. Israel in April 2019 unsuccessfully attempted to land an unmanned spacecraft, Beresheet, on the moon.
Hebrew video of the event at the president’s residence:
Rivlin also acknowledged the timing of the mission, which comes amid a global pandemic.
“This mission to space, for science and research, on behalf of humanity’s unending search for knowledge, for discovery, for understanding, is being launched at a time when humanity is facing one of its greatest challenges. It is a crisis our generation has not known. Because of the virus, we have come to realize how many great concepts – like science, medicine and research – can fundamentally shake our lives.
“We have come to realize how much we do not know, not only about distant planets and infinitely huge galaxies, but even here on our own small planet. Dealing with this microscopic, tiny virus, in an effort to find a vaccine, we must work together, scientists from different countries and peoples. That is the power of science. It reminds us that we are part of something much bigger, that speaks to the human spirit that is within us all.”
Rivlin said that Stibbe will be “Israel’s representative in the human effort to understand the miraculous mechanism that enables life on this globe, and to crack the secrets of the universe.”
“Go in peace, and return in peace,” the president told Stibbe.
The astronaut is a colonel in the Israeli Air Force reserves who flew as a fighter pilot for 43 years and participated in dozens of operational missions.
He is the founder and chair of Vital Capital Fund and over the last 35 years has worked on developing business and financing initiatives for infrastructure projects in the developing world.