U.S.-Israel Space Cooperation Takes Off

An Israeli Air force pilot will soon be boarding an American space shuttle. Ilan Ramon will make history in the year 2000 as the first Israeli astronaut to fly on an American space mission. He will help conduct the Mediterranean - Israel Dust Experiment, which will be conducted with Israeli flight hardware on an American shuttle. This joint experiment is only one of many examples of U.S. - Israel space cooperation.

Almost from its inception in 1983, the Israel Space Agency (ISA) has been working with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As a small country, Israel has had limited opportunities for space research. ISA has a total employee/contractor staff of about 15-20 people and an annual budget of approximately $2 million. In contrast, NASA was created 41 years ago, is part of the U.S. aerospace industry that supports nearly one million jobs, and has a 1999 budget of $13.6 billion. Still, in recent years, Israel has begun to develop powerful rockets and launch satellites. In addition, it has long been involved in space-related research that can be conducted on earth.

NASA and ISA began to work together in 1985. Under contract from ISA, the Institute of Petroleum Research and Geophysics in Israel operated a NASA-furnished mobile satellite laser ranging station at the Bar-Giora Geophysical Satellite Observatory, which provided data on earthquakes, polar motion and earth rotation. NASA’s chief of International Planning and Programs said in 1990, “NASA considers that major achievements have come from the operation of the Bar-Giora SLR Station by the Israeli Space Agency.”

Then U.S. Ambassador to Israel William Harrop said in 1992, “Israel needs to know as much about the U.S. space program as possible, and, conversely, the U.S. needs to know as much as possible about Israel’s space program.”

That year, the U.S. space shuttle Endeavor was launched with 180 hornets to investigate the effects of near-zero gravity on them. The ultimate goal was to discover how to prevent astronauts from suffering headaches, nausea, vomiting and weakness during missions. The flight hardware was built by Israel Aircraft Industries, with the support of ISA, and the principal investigator for the project was from Tel-Aviv University.

On October 2, 1996, NASA and ISA signed an umbrella agreement "for cooperation in the peaceful use of space." One recent example of this collaboration involves two educational projects - EOSDIS and GLOBE. The first is an agreement to share information through NASA’s Earth Observation System Data Information System. ISA will establish an EOSDIS node at Tel-Aviv University to provide an interface between EOSDIS and ISA’s Earth science and environmental observation data and information system. ISA will get information from EOSDIS that can be used for weather prediction, agriculture and meteorology. In exchange, Israeli universities and research institutes will contribute their own Earth observation data.

The second venture is the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program, which is funded by NASA in an effort to link schoolchildren to scientists. Students collect environmental data, which teachers submit via the Internet to a worldwide database. The database is then available so students can compare their data to that from other schools, while scientists use the information for cutting-edge research. Fifty-one Israeli schools are involved with GLOBE.

Other cooperative efforts range from sharing data regarding pollution to measuring tropical rainfall to studying microgravity. NASA is also currently training Israel’s first two astronauts - Ramon and his backup, Lt. Col. Yitzhak May.

These examples only scratch the surface of a burgeoning U.S. - Israel space program. The future of space cooperation looks even brighter after President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed during their July meeting to establish a committee of NASA and the ISA representatives to continue to develop "practical applications in the peaceful use of space."