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Sunday, December 21, 2014

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Tiny Israel a space power, conference shows

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From left are Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, Rona Ramon and Menachem Grinblum, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology. [Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/GPO photo]

TEL AVIV — Israel may be a tiny nation but it has a lot to offer the international space field.

That was the main message to come out of the eighth annual Ilan Ramon Space Conference in Herzliya at the end of January, which drew a record 14 heads of space agencies as well as experts from around the world, including NASA and the European Space Agency.

“Israel belongs to an exclusive club of about 10 countries in the world that have all capabilities in space – producing satellites, launching them and communicating with them,” Daniel Hershkowitz, Israel’s minister of science and technology, told The CJN. “We are small, but Israel is a power in space research.”

Hershkowitz said Israel’s importance in the field was highlighted at the conference, where participants included current NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the heads of space agencies in France, Brazil and Italy, deputy heads of agencies from Canada and Russia, a senior representative from China, and representatives from several top companies.

Israel’s space industry specializes in specific areas, including miniaturization and communication technologies.

And though the Israel Space Agency’s budget is all but insignificant compared to that of NASA, it is a sought-after collaboration partner.

“Israel is one of the anchors of co-operation with NASA, along with several other countries. We will consider expansion of co-operation on other applications in space exploration and development of integrated technologies” Bolden told the conference.

“The entrepreneurial spirit of the Israeli people is so overwhelmingly strong,” former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe told the Media Line Mideast news service. “You have honed the idea of using whatever you have to respond to the situation.”

The meeting in Israel also recalled the 10th anniversary of the Columbia shuttle disaster, in which Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was killed.

“This conference commemorates the amazing life of Ilan Ramon by fostering co-operation among nations,” Bolden told the attendees. “The word ‘shalom’ is not simply ‘peace,’ but wholeness and completeness. Ilan and the whole crew brought us wholeness, even though they are no longer here. It’s up to all of us to build on their legacy.”

And though the schedule had many workshops on the latest developments in the field, space agency heads and astronauts took time to meet with the next generation of space explorers.

Bolden attended the opening of Israel’s new educational Moona Science, Environment and Space Center in Sakhnin, which is being dubbed as a new opportunity to further Arab-Jewish coexistence.

“A space shuttle successfully connects between 14 astronauts from around the world, no matter what culture, religion, race, gender or nationality they are,” Bolden told students at the opening of the centre. “They all connect, which means that we can also do that on the ground, and in this way, you can act and succeed.”

Bolden and U.S. astronaut Randy Bresnik also judged an exhibition of solar system models built by Jerusalem-area high school students.

“Israel has a strong human resource. But human resource is not something you find at age 25. It’s something you invest in from birth. Exposing children at an early age to the magic of science is extremely important,” Hershkowitz told The CJN.

Space IL, a non-profit organization established by a multidisciplinary team of Israeli space enthusiasts to compete for the $30-million Google Lunar X Prize, was also at the conference. Google’s challenge calls for a team to successfully launch, fly and land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon. Yariv Bash, a co-founder of the Israeli team, said it was important that NASA leaders took time to talk to the school children.

“They are the future of Israel,” he said. “Space IL is aimed at the young generation. We are trying to ignite the imagination of the country’s young generation and push ingenuity past its limits. We want to stimulate the young to take an interest in space exploration.”

Bolden said at the conference he is sure Israel will eventually produce another astronaut.

The Science and Technology Ministry put out a statement that said it is looking seriously into the option of training another Israeli to become an astronaut in the tradition of the late Col. Ilan Ramon. The Israel Space Agency is making informal contacts with international space authorities on the matter. Although NASA has halted the dispatching of manned space shuttles into space, it may be that an Israeli trained by NASA could be sent to work at the International Space Station in a few years, the ministry said.

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