Space, the final frontier for peace?

Space exploration can encourage peace between implacable enemies, says the head of the International Astronautical Federation

Prof. Dr. Berndt Feuerbacher (photo credit: Sivan Faraj)
Prof. Dr. Berndt Feuerbacher (photo credit: Sivan Faraj)

If space can bring together once-implacable enemies such as the United States and Russia, does that mean there’s hope for Israel and Iran?

“I believe there is,” said Prof. Dr. Berndt Feuerbacher, immediate past president of the International Astronautical Federation. “I am not a politician, but I believe that one important way to encourage peace between nations is to encourage cooperation in science and technology.”

It’s a scenario that’s hard to imagine today — and Feuerbacher happened to be visiting during an upsurge in tension surrounding Israel’s reported airstrike in Syria. But during the tense days of the Cold War, no one believed that the US and former USSR could ever cooperate on a project like the International Space Station.

Yet they did, in no small part due to efforts by the IAF, also known simply, “Star-Trek” style, as “the Federation.” The Paris-based Federation was established in 1951, just as the Cold War hit its height, in order to prevent the heavens from becoming another battlefield between East and West.

Slowly over the decades, the Federation’s message of space cooperation has seeped into the minds of world leaders, right up until today, Feuerbacher told The Times of Israel. The organization includes every national space agency in the world — including Israel’s and Iran’s — along with a plethora of corporate, academic, and government groups that work on research, design, and policy related to space exploration.

Feuerbacher was speaking on the sidelines of the 8thannual Ilan Ramon Space Conference, jointly organized by the Israel Space Agency and the Fischer Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya. Attending the event, held on the 10th anniversary of the death of Israel’s first and so far only astronaut and the rest of the Space Shuttle Columbia crew, were the heads of 14 space agencies around the world, including NASA and the European Space Agency.

Although Israel has sent up numerous satellites, it’s not exactly a “space power” like the US and some European countries. Nevertheless, said Feuerbacher, Israel has made several extremely important contributions to the technology used nowadays to explore space, including high-resolution optics that enable closer and more accurate photography of the earth from space, along with top-flight radar.

One very important Israeli contribution, said Feuerbacher, was its development of miniaturized satellites. “Until recently, such small satellites were used by universities and research institutions because they weren’t as capable, but with breakthroughs developed in Israel, the new miniaturized satellites developed by Israel are a real breakthrough,” because they’re smaller, cheaper, and can do as much, or sometimes more, than “regular” satellites can do. While Israel is not the sole manufacturer of miniaturized satellites (although it is a major one), the whole world is moving towards adopting this made-in-Israel satellite breakthrough.

Interestingly, said Feuerbacher, Israel’s geographic disadvantages are the reason the country turned to miniaturized satellites. “Generally, satellites are launched in an easterly direction,” in order to take advantage of prevailing winds. But Israel, considering who her eastern neighbors are, is unable to follow that pattern. “Israel had no choice but to launch satellites in the opposite direction of everyone else, and in order to ensure that satellites got off the ground they had to be lighter, but just as capable as heavier satellites.” Hence a breakthrough that the entire world will be able to enjoy — including, most likely, some of those “easterly neighbors” that prevented Israel from launching “regular” satellites in the first place — because, as a member of the Federation, Israel is, like all other members, required to share technology, knowledge, and cooperation.

And cooperation in space leads to cooperation on earth. This year’s annual Federation-sponsored IAC (International Astronautical Conference) will be held in Beijing — a site deliberately chosen, said Feuerbacher, in order to help reduce tensions between China and the US. “They may have trouble getting along politically, but when it comes to technology they can get along very well” — which, as members in good standing of the Federation, they are going to have to do, like it or not.

If space can bring together the US and China, why not Israel and Iran? “I am convinced that the international space station has contributed to peace between the US and Russia, and that is why we do not exclude Iran,” despite its rhetoric against Israel. “We invite them and will encourage them to contribute their science and technology for the benefit of all.”

And if it turns out that Iran’s space and aeronautics programs are being developed to specifically bomb Israel into outer space? “Those are issues we cannot get involved in; they are beyond our scope. We are purely a scientific and technology organization.”

Nevertheless, Feuerbacher is convinced that international Federation-sponsored cooperation will help change things — and in fact, Iran will have to decide soon whether or not it values science or anti-Semitism more. “We are going to be holding the 2015 IAC in Israel, and we’ve consulted with the government, which assures us that all who are invited will be able to attend” — including those from Iran, Arab countries, and nations that Israel generally doesn’t “talk to,” said Feuerbacher. “It is our intention to build bridges.”

Who knows where that cooperation can lead? “I firmly believe there is a market for leisure activities in space, and there are several companies that are trying to develop the market,” said Feuerbacher, speaking of people like British billionaire Richard Branson, who encourages you to “book your place in space” for the virgin flight of his Virgin Galactic space travel company. Within a decade, Feuerbacher expects there to be a major industry for orbital space flights for tourists, and even moon colonies later on are not out of the question.

In order to get to that point, however, more research and development is needed — and fortunately, said Feuerbacher, governments in the EU have not fallen into what he calls the trap of sacrificing long-term scientific and technological advancement for short-term budgetary savings. “Even though there is a recession and budget problems in many European countries, the total expenditure for space exploration has not fallen there.”

That’s a good thing, said Feuerbacher. “In all modern economies, space-related research has had a huge value-added benefit, with the people and economy benefiting from the research in many ways,” with new devices, gadgets and services based on that research. “I think that, at this point, most people understand that spending money on space-related science and technology is not a problem,” he said. “It’s a way to overcome a problem.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed