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Israel’s Science Minister on Space Technology–for Peaceful and Militaristic Aims

By John Matson | May 10, 2012 |
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Israel rocket launch

Launch of an Israeli Shavit rocket via Wikimedia Commons

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down withDaniel Hershkowitz, Israel’s minister of science and technology, to talk about his country’s capabilities and ambitions in space. We spoke about Israel’s homegrown platforms for launching satellites into space; the commercial, military and scientific applications of those satellites; and whether the country has plans to return to the human spaceflight arena, almost 10 years after its first foray ended in tragedy.

The Israeli space program is a minuscule operation compared to NASA or the European Space Agency—not surprising for a nation with about the land area and population of New Jersey. “The Israeli Space Agency does not have its own industries,” Hershkowitz says. “It’s just a very small body that coordinates in the activities of the other industries, and also coordinates between the civilian and the military applications.” To do that, he says, the agency has an annual budget of about $50 million. Israel’s presence in space is defined primarily by a network of Earth observation, communication and reconnaissance satellites. But Hershkowitz notes that his nation takes the overall enterprise of scientific research quite seriously. Israel leads the world in terms of percentage of GDP spent on research and development, and he notes that by some criteria its space program is fairly advanced:

In fact, nowadays Israel belongs to the very exclusive club of about 10 countries in the world that have all capabilities in space. When we say all, I mean producing satellites, both the bus and the payload, launching them and communicating with them. There are only about 10 such states in the world, and Israel belongs to that exclusive club.

Hershkowitz cited Israel’s “special needs”—namely its long-running tensions with neighboring countries—as necessitating its self-reliance in space. And he did not shy away from the closely entwined military and civilian history of Israel’s space program:

As in most countries of the world that have space programs, things started from the military. Mainly observation satellites.

The focus on surveillance continues today. Israel is certainly not alone in accessing the ultimate high ground for observation purposes, nor in entangling its defense needs with its peaceful aims. NASA’s space shuttles ferried 10 or so secret Department of Defense payloads to orbit during the 1980s and 1990s, even as the shuttles carried out other unclassified missions for scientific aims. The same goes for Israel today, where eyes in the sky can serve multiple purposes. Hershkowitz estimates that “close to half of what we invest nowadays in space has to do with scientific applications and civilian applications,” such as monitoring water pollution and soil conditions for agriculture. But he acknowledges that Middle East turmoil will ensure that reconnaissance remains a top priority:

I think that Israel will continue to be in a leading position in observation satellites, and that’s because of our strategic needs. With observation satellites, of course I would focus on the TecSAR satellites, which are based on radar. This is today the cutting-edge technology; Israel is very much in a leading position. Some of the abilities are still even secret, because you don’t want to reveal the ability of what you can see through.

Earth satellites are crucial to just about any space-faring nation, but what about more ambitious explorations? Specifically, what of human spaceflight? Israel fielded its first astronaut, Israeli Air Force colonel Ilan Ramon, in 1997. But Ramon’s first mission ended in disaster when space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in 2003, killing all seven crew members on board. According to Hershkowitz, Israel has no immediate plans to recruit a second astronaut:

Usually the public is very fascinated by human missions, and by astronauts. But you know, one of the reasons that the United States has decided to abandon its human programs and does not use the shuttles anymore, and as I said, when they have to send astronauts to the International Space Station they use Russian shuttles, the reason is that I would say scientifically and even technologically, manned missions have ceased to be interesting. Besides of course the myth, and there is some fascination and attraction about it, but they really limit the mission. Because a human being is of course limited by certain things, and it really limits the mission in terms of distance, in terms of duration of mission….

Of course, you know, it’s nice to have an astronaut, but it really doesn’t help the strategic needs of the state of Israel. It is possible that in a certain stage we will have another Israeli astronaut … but we don’t have right now much interest in that. We have other priorities.

Amid all the talk of strategic needs and the fraught political tensions and conflicts in the Middle East, I was curious to know if Hershkowitz views Israel as a participant in a space race with Iran, or with any other country in the region. Even though Iran has in recent years joined the club of space-faring nations with the launch of a homegrown satellite, Hershkowitz says he does not see a race unfolding:

I don’t see a space race, because after all space is not a platform for weapons. It’s a platform for information. Now, we know that the way we collect information on our enemies, our enemies also try to do that and collect information. I wouldn’t say that there is a race, but there is a big gap, a huge gap, between the abilities of Israel and its neighbors. In fact, except for Iran, none of our neighboring countries have real space abilities. Sometimes they buy services from others, but it’s really not the same.

Iran may be a relative newcomer to the spaceflight club, but it is a long-standing member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. That committee, which works on issues of international cooperation in space, has a large and diverse membership of 71 countries—a collection from which Israel is notably absent. So I asked if Israel has a desire to join its space-faring peers by signing on to the committee. His reply:

In principle the answer is yes. My ministry is not the one that is involved in that, that is definitely the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the answer is positive.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.More »