Boosting Israel’s place in the space race

Recipients of the Ilan Ramon Scholarship & Endowment Project at International Space University’s 2008 summer session in Barcelona: (from left) Assaf “Asy” Peer, Ofer Lapid, Ehud Hayun.It’s a moment when all Israelis remember where they were and what they were …

Recipients of the Ilan Ramon Scholarship & Endowment Project at International Space University’s 2008 summer session in Barcelona: (from left) Assaf “Asy” Peer, Ofer Lapid, Ehud Hayun.It’s a moment when all Israelis remember where they were and what they were doing. In 2003, pride turned to grief in an instant when the space shuttle Columbia and its crew – including Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon – perished when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

A fitting tribute, the Ilan Ramon Scholarship and Endowment Project, was established in 2004 by California-based venture capitalist Michael Potter, in consultation with the Ramon family, to provide scholarship funding for Israeli citizens to attend programs at the International Space University (ISU).

Located in Strasbourg, France, ISU’s stated goal is “to provide graduate-level interdisciplinary training to the future leaders of the world’s space efforts”. Since its inception in 1987, some 2,600 students from over 80 countries have graduated from ISU’s two-month Summer Session Program and its one-year Master of Space Studies Program.

This past summer, the project sent three Israeli students to ISU’s post-graduate summer session in Barcelona. To be clear, ISU educates space industry professionals and not everyone who attends ISU is an astronaut in training. This year’s participants were Ehud Hayun from the MBT Space Division at Israel Aerospace Industries; Ofer Lapid of Israel’s Ministry of Defense; and Assaf “Asy” Peer of Intentia, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software firm.

A personal interest in space

All 112 participants come from a range of backgrounds, Peer tells ISRAEL21c. “Everyone has a personal interest in space, but from different angles – historians, lawyers, or people like myself who work in high-tech,” he explains. “Then there were professionals: astrophysicists, aerospace engineers, medical professionals, people who work at space agencies or companies.”

The first section of the program was an intensive mix of 60 core lectures, plus advanced electives, followed by two weeks of departmental activities, including a three-day trip to Madrid to learn about European space program. After that, the students were divided into three groups and picked a team project to work on for the rest of the summer.

This year’s team project subjects were early warning and tracking of volcanic activity from space; the Google Lunar X Prize (a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon to transmit data back to the Earth); and spaceports. Students were divided into disciples – policy, management, sciences – and each team was asked to write up a framework report.

“One of the things they try to encourage you to do is not to ‘go with what you know’, but try something new,” says Hayun, who opted for life sciences. “Although Israel doesn’t have manned space flights, I wanted to learn about what’s being done in this field. I do satellites every day, so what would I get out of that? ISU also wants to stimulate your creativity.”

Lapid, who joined the policy and law team focusing on volcanoes, says another benefit was being able to show international colleagues, both teachers and students, “that Israel has something to offer in space. Most had never met an Israeli before, let alone a veteran Israeli space engineer. They came to understand, too, that Israel is very advanced in aerospace research, which is something they hadn’t realized before,” he says.

Another thing most weren’t aware of, adds Lapid, “was our ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’, make things happen, straight talking attitude. We showed them the Israeli work ethic: day and night, ’round the clock if needed, don’t let fatigue get to you – and rest later.”

The ISU program, which is carried out in English, also provides benefits on the networking level. Participants live and work with people from many different countries and disciplines.

ISU works hard on promoting intercultural understanding, with regular Friday evening presentations by participants of traditional food and music. In addition to their dinner, the Israeli participants, together with the Turks and Italians, also organized a Mediterranean beach party towards the end of the term – again, in the sprit of showing how Israelis do things – breaking the deadline tension but getting back to work the next day.

Shooting for the Stars

There is something deeper to the ISU that participants take away with them than just the chance to share a plate of hummus, notes Hayun. “One of the main messages the program delivers to the students is that humanity is taking the next evolutionary step, to leave earth. Our daily existence in Israel doesn’t allow us to think about these things so the program tries to help us to realize that next step. And it’s not a pipe dream; there are concrete plans to colonize the moon in the near future. In the longer term – 30 to 40 years – there will be a manned flight to Mars. They try to convey the message that we should be part of this future.”

Israel’s future, Lapid feels, is interconnected with that of the global space program, noting that that while Israel is very strong in communication and surveillance satellite development, “we’re not wealthy enough to do everything ourselves. Israel is rightly proud of its advanced space research and technologies, which resulted from years of highly focused effort out of necessity on national security needs. Nowadays this know-how can be used for scientific and commercial uses which will benefit mankind. To that end, international partners are required. Its very important as a small isolated country that we have many cooperative ventures with public, private and research partners who care about Israel’s existence; it will reinforce our existence.”

Peer is now considering the ISU Masters program in space management, if he can get a scholarship.

Daniel Rockberger, who attended ISU’s Masters’ degree course in Strasbourg on scholarship in 2007, does hope to be the next Israeli astronaut. He was a candidate for the European Space Agency’s most recent astronaut corps course, (as a British citizen, as Israel is not a part of the ESA), making the top 700 but not the final cut. He intends to reapply in a few years. “I want to be an astronaut and would love to wear the Israeli flag on my shoulder but I don’t think there’s any talk about training an Israeli at this point.”

Another scholarship recipient, Yael Barr, a graduate of Tel Aviv University’s medical school, attended ISU’s summer program in 2003 and is now completing her residency in aerospace medicine in Houston, Texas.

No matter where they end up, none of the Israeli recipients forget the man whose tragic end is helping to make their dreams a reality. Before coming to ISU, Lapid acquired a number of Israeli first-day issue stamps memorializing Ilan Ramon, and gave them to those faculty members who had known Ramon personally at NASA. “They were very moved. On culture night we showed a picture of Ilan and explained that we were there because of this tragedy. And it came from the heart; it wasn’t something that someone told us to do.”

Hayun: “We mentioned whenever possible that we were there because of the Ilan Ramon project. And it’s important because we haven’t forgotten Ilan Ramon the man – his presence was there with us and we knew that we were there because of him.”

The Ilan Ramon Scholarship & Endowment Project is now in the process of assembling the Israeli delegation to the 2009 summer studies program at the NASA Ames Research Center in California.

About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.