Making a Case for Space

Israel must lead in space exploration for maintaining its qualitative military edge, for national prestige, for promoting technological innovation and for leading humanity in pushing the boundaries of the next frontier

The Final Frontier (Photo: Amit Bar-Yosef)

Last week, Israel successfully launched the Ofek 10 satellite, adding another essential intelligence asset and reinforcing Israel's place in the prestigious club of space exploration leaders. Besides military applications,
Israel/>/> is also involved in many space exploration initiatives with commercial and scientific goals.

Space exploration is a highly debatable issue. Here are some questions, addressing the matter from an international, as well as Israeli perspective.

Why invest in space? Aren't there enough problems here on earth requiring our tax money?

Space is important for defense applications, such as reconnaissance and communication satellites. Missile defense requires operating in space in order to detect and shoot down threats even before they reenter the atmosphere. In the future, we may have other space-based capabilities, such as the ability to strike targets, either by laser or by dispensing precision guided munitions.

As for civilian uses, without satellites there would be no cell phones, no internet, no weather forecasting and no navigational data for WAZE. The need for cutting-edge technology aboard spacecrafts has stimulated progress and innovation, making life on earth easier and better, through a multitude of technologies adapted from spaceflight to everyday use.

It is difficult to predict what other implementations or spin-offs space exploration may someday produce. We may eventually master the ability not only to forecast, but to alter weather systems. We may solve the earth's energy deficits by harvesting sustainable energy in space. We might need to protect earth from an existential threat such as an inbound asteroid or sun flare. Maybe we will dispose of our waste in some remote planet. And of course, we may simply want to take a vacation on Mars.

The pursuit of pure science and abstract knowledge also motivates us. We need to satisfy our curiosity, and deepen our understanding of the universe, our planet and ourselves. We are inspired by space exploration. Steven Hawking said it best: “To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”

So operating in space is important. But why risk the lives of astronauts, when robots could do it safer, better, and cheaper?

Life support systems built to withstand the harsh and unforgiving environment in space make spaceships bigger and much more expensive. Unmanned platforms would give us much more science for the same money.

In his book Breakout Into Space, George Henry Elias presents a detailed argument on why the human race, led by the United States, must develop and settle space as the next frontier. Our species may someday need to leave earth and find a new habitat, due to overpopulation, natural catastrophes such as an asteroid impact, or if we render the planet inhabitable by nuclear or environmental disasters.

His case may sound somewhat apocalyptic, but in my opinion it is sadly very realistic. Since we are a generation that has grown into relative stability, it's hard for us to grasp this, but reviewing global trends, and even looking across the border at our neighbors, teaches us how vulnerable our world really is.

In order to enable this human migration, we had better work on acquiring the means and methods for establishing a self-sufficient interplanetary civilization.

Data accumulated by scientists from the biomedical aspects of extended human presence in microgravity at the International Space Station (ISS) will someday enable long duration trips, such as to Mars and beyond.

Some prosperous and popular areas in the world were uninhabited and dangerous not too long ago, but people moved there, seeking a new life. We humans must always push the boundaries and boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before. It's who we are, it's what we're about, and history has taught us that this explorative attitude ultimately pays off.

But even before we leave earth, human spaceflight is essential for promoting life on earth. It is a fact that human space flight has significantly contributed to aviation safety. NASA has had an enormous influence on world aviation, introducing safety methodologies and technological improvements which were developed for space flight but found their way to passenger planes.

Seeing spaceflight and aviation as two separate entities is a mistake. There is no doubt that suborbital flight will eventually replace current methods for flying long distances, facilitating a trip from Israel/> to Australia/> in about one hour.

Why should Israel invest in space? Shouldn't we leave this for countries with more resources?

First and foremost, it is crucial for our defense. A country as challenged as Israel must utilize and dominate space in order to keep its qualitative military edge, as we do on land, at sea and in the air.

Israel is a world leader in technological innovation, and it is only natural that we lead humanity in pushing the boundaries of the next frontier. The world needs our spirit and skills and we have a responsibility to contribute to making the world a better place. We know how to invent stuff. We believe in breaking ground and breaking the rules. We think outside of the box. We are explorers, inventors, entrepreneurs, pioneers and settlers.

Recent development of private space initiatives also opens up enormous markets and business opportunities.

Leading in space is also a matter of geopolitical leverage and national prestige. Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced that Israel would send another astronaut to the ISS within a few years. Some commentators mentioned as-a-matter-of fact that it would be another Air Force pilot.

Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, tragically perished along with his crewmembers aboard the Space Shuttle Colombia. He proved to be a wonderful ambassador for Israel/>, demonstrating not only remarkable professionalism, but a captivating personality.

The Mercury astronauts selected by NASA in 1959 were all military test pilots. The idea was to select people who had already proven their ability to withstand extreme physical and mental challenges.

In the novel Space, James Michener described the selection process of his imaginary "solid six" astronauts, where great emphasis was put on their public image. PR was, and still is, an essential tool in garnering public support for the promotion of space exploration.

However, I believe that the next Israeli astronaut should be a scientist, not a pilot. The advantages of an aviator's skills are vastly outweighed by the need to choose someone who can promote scientific objectives. Moreover, this would be a wonderful opportunity for showing a side of Israel/> that is detached from defense aspects. If it were up to me, I would choose a woman scientist.

There is another aspect of space exploration which I find most appealing. It can serve as a collective human endeavor, characterized by neutrality, harmony and peace. The ISS is an incredible international collaboration, serving not only as a scientific lab, but as an experiment in multicultural coexistence and partnership.

It is fascinating to hear astronauts describe their feelings as they gaze down at earth. Ilan Ramon wrote: "We are working this mission for the benefit of all mankind, and from space our world looks as one unity with no borders. So let me call from up here in space - let’s work our way for peace and better life for everyone on Earth."

Article first published in the Jerusalem Post, April 18 2014.

The writer is a former pilot in the IAF, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and Project Manager at CockpitRM.

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