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Israel’s second-ever astronaut preparing to finally head to space on Friday

After repeated delays, Eytan Stibbe is days away from taking part in the world’s first private mission to the International Space Station, for a week of experiments

Eytan Stibbe trains for a study with the Fluidic Telescope Experiment (FLUTE) designed and built by researchers in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Technion in collaboration with a team of researchers at NASA. (Courtesy of the Technion)
Eytan Stibbe trains for a study with the Fluidic Telescope Experiment (FLUTE) designed and built by researchers in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Technion in collaboration with a team of researchers at NASA. (Courtesy of the Technion)

After more than a year of preparation and multiple delays, Eytan Stibbe is gearing up to become Israel’s second-ever astronaut ahead of his scheduled take-off this Friday.

“I feel very safe, and I trust the equipment that we are using,” Stibbe told Israeli reporters in a Zoom press conference on Tuesday from Florida, where he is in pre-flight quarantine. “We are constantly carrying out further inspections to ensure everything is fine.”

Stibbe, 64, is heading up Israel’s Rakia Mission aboard the International Space Station as part of Axiom Space Ax-1, the world’s first private mission to the ISS, and is expected to spend about a week there.

Stibbe, a former fighter pilot, will travel to the ISS onboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule in a mission commanded by Spanish-American astronaut and Axiom Space vice president Michael Lopez-Alegria, alongside Ax-1 mission pilot Larry Connor, an American entrepreneur and nonprofit activist investor, and Mark Pathy, Ax-1 mission specialist and Canadian researcher.

The first-ever Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was killed in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members on board. Members of the Ramon family were on hand when Stibbe’s flight was first announced in 2020, and will also be present at the take-off in Orlando this weekend.

“The equipment and the technology has improved greatly since the tragedy that killed Ilan Ramon,” Stibbe said Tuesday. He said he is in close contact with members of the Ramon family “and I’m very moved that they came here, especially since I know that this brings back difficult experiences for them from 20 years ago.”

Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe (right) holds a 1,900-year-old coin from the Bar Kochba revolt that he will take to space, standing alongside Eli Eskosido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, August 2021. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Stibbe is slated to carry out a series of 35 experiments during his time aboard the ISS. The selected projects reflect a wide spectrum of scientific and technological disciplines — including radiation, genomics, immunology, neural functioning, quantum communication, astrophysics, agri-tech, communications, optics, ophthalmology, medical devices, and disease research.

He said he is not concerned over any effects of the Russian-Ukraine war on his work aboard the ISS, which is partially controlled by Russia. “Everything is continuing as normal,” Stibbe said. “We don’t talk about politics, we’re focused on the work.”

Stibbe, who made millions in business and investment projects including some questionable activities in arms sales, has fronted the full cost of his participation, said to be approximately $55 million.

He said Tuesday that despite the criticism of such privately-funded missions, “they contribute a great deal to science.”

President Isaac Herzog, left, presents Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe with a glass cube inscribed with a prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Stibbe, who will likely be on board the ISS during the first night of Passover, is slated to bring several items of significance into space, including a glass cube inscribed with a prayer for the welfare of Israel presented to him by President Isaac Herzog. He is also slated to take with him another Jewish artifact, an ancient coin minted during the Bar Kochba revolt and uncovered recently in a Judean Desert cave.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Stibbe said he had many mixed emotions just days ahead of the scheduled flight, assuming there are no further delays.

“This is a very special moment, it reminds me a bit of the first foray I made on a fighter jet, a feeling like getting a kick in the behind, and then you realize that everything is under control and the stick is in your hands,” he said. “Only here everything is autonomous.”

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