Israel in Space

In the shadow of October 7, the story of Israel’s rapidly growing space industry is easily overlooked. But it holds many of the keys for the nation’s future survival.

Israelis looks at a full lunar eclipse above the Judean desert from Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus on December 10, 2011. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Israelis looks at a full lunar eclipse above the Judean desert from Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus on December 10, 2011. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Essay
June 3 2024
About the author
Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of ten books, including Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II and The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (2021).

Palmahim is a kibbutz located less than ten miles south of Tel Aviv and overlooks some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Just to the south lies Palmahim Air Base. The base is known for housing Israeli air-force drones that support ground operations in Gaza. It is less well-known, for now at least, for its other purpose: serving as Israel’s spaceport, the place from which the nation launches a steady stream of satellites meant primarily for national-security use, though increasingly for commercial use as well.

Indeed, Palmahim is the physical hub of a rapidly growing Israeli space mission and industry, itself one of the most underappreciated stories about Israel’s rise as a high-tech titan.  The Jewish state’s space program draws on a constellation of public and private entities: there’s the government itself; the abundant research and development at universities; a deep reservoir of technical skill and experience at dozens of core defense and aerospace companies; a broader pool of start-up smarts and entrepreneurial energy; and a confident and eager workforce.

It’s a workforce attuned to Israel’s strategic situation, thanks to its training in the IDF, and one in which, as one member of the workforce put it, every Israeli girl is taught to think of herself as Wonder Woman, whether on the battlefield, in the research lab, the corporate board room, or while preparing the next generation of nanosatellites.

In the shadow of October 7, the story of Palmahim is easily overlooked. But it holds many of the keys for Israel’s future survival as well as its prosperity, and its relationship with the United States. It’s one that has already drawn Israel’s space sector into partnership with America’s premier space company, SpaceX, not only in terms of physical cooperation and collaboration, but also in terms of thinking far into the future of space, including missions to the moon and Mars.

Yet as we’ll also see, Israel’s space sector functions so well in part because it understands its links to the Jewish people’s tragic history and remains aware that exploration of the future relies on foundations in the past.

 

I. Beresheet

 

On April 11, 2019, two landmark events in space exploration took place.

The first was the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center as it carried the Arabsat-6A satellite into orbit. Landmark, because all three of Falcon Heavy’s boosters returned to earth successfully for reuse, the first time so many boosters were preserved; but also because of its cargo, the first time SpaceX rockets were used to carry a satellite built at the order of the Arab League.

The second landmark event also involved SpaceX, which two months earlier had launched, on its Falcon 9 rocket, a spacecraft built by two Israeli companies, SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). That day, Beresheet was about to become the first Israeli craft to make a soft landing on the moon; it would also be the very first moon landing that had been completely privately funded.

The Falcon 9 blasted Beresheet into space on February 21 from Cape Canaveral. It then looped around earth for nearly six weeks—longer than any previous lander mission—performing the occasional short engine burn to push its elliptical orbit closer and closer to the moon, until the moon’s gravity took over. (Why so long a trip? Because to save money, Beresheet had to share the launch with other payloads, one for Indonesia and the other for the U.S. Air Force. SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub called it “Uber-style space exploration.”)

By the afternoon of April 11, Beresheet was less than 500 feet from the lunar surface. Everything was set for a perfect soft landing, when Israel Mission Control suddenly lost communication with the spacecraft. As they later learned, the main engine had unexpectedly given out, and the lander flipped over and crashed at 3:25 pm Eastern time.

So, landmark event, yes; success, not exactly. Even though it managed to get to lunar orbit and send back a photograph a few hundred feet from the moon’s surface before crashing, by any conventional measure, the joint Space IL/IAI mission was a failure. Certainly compared to successful lunar landings by American, Chinese, and, most recently, Indian spacecraft, Beresheet represented a setback.

Still, regardless of the outcome, the mere presence of Beresheet so close to the lunar surface signaled to the world that Israel was a burgeoning player on one of the next major frontiers—the so-called Last Frontier—of advanced technology. Over the past decade, very quietly, Israel’s interest in space, which was born from urgent national-security concerns, has grown into a mature industry capable of serving as a key partner for major international space companies. It is also capable of serving as a partner with governments, especially the U.S. government, which is now focused on space both as a burgeoning commercial opportunity and as the next domain of great-power competition with China.

The Israeli space program is not yet at par with Britain or France or even Japan, let alone the U.S. or China, and it may never be. But it consistently displays the combination of ingenuity, initiative, and innovation that the rest of the world has come to expect from the start-up nation—the combination that has made Israel the envy of the high-tech world, and that could also make it a decisive player in any future war in space.

 

II. The Launch of the Israeli Space Program

 

Beresheet stands a long distance from where Israel’s interest in space first began. That was at a closed-door meeting at the end of 1982 between then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and  the former director-general of the Defense Ministry, Brigadier General Aharon Beit Halahmi. It was there and then that the trio decided it was time to create a separate Israeli space agency, to be led by the president of Tel Aviv University, Yuval Neeman.

It was a tense moment for Israel: the year of Israel’s siege of Beirut, when U.S.-Israel relations were nearing a breaking point. The Reagan administration was threatening to cut off aid to Israel and publicly scolding it that the weapons supplied by the United States were to be used for defensive purposes only—rhetoric that has a familiar ring 42 years later.

Even more frustrating from Israel’s point of view was its inability to conduct reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, because those flights often required using the air space of hostile neighbors, Syria chief among them. Instead, Begin and his colleagues decided Israel needed to go not through but over that air space. How? By using low-earth-orbit satellites, satellites moving at less than 1,200 miles above the earth’s surface. These would be comparatively small in size but highly effective operationally. It was out of this concept that the centerpieces of the Israeli space industry were born, the Ofeq and Shavit space programs.

The choice of Yuval Neeman to head the program made sense. Born in Tel Aviv during the Palestine Mandate, Neeman was something of a multidisciplinary genius of early Israel. He was fifteen when he joined the Haganah, served as a deputy battalion commander in the IDF during the 1948 War of Independence, then later commanded the storied Givati Brigade. He had been critical in turning the IDF into a reserve-based military force and had written up Israel’s first formal defense doctrine.

After the 1948 war, Neeman also went to study physics at the University of London, and became an award-winning physicist as well as president of Tel Aviv University. He was somehow also serving the government as minister of science and development when the mantle of heading up the new space agency fell on his shoulders.

Like so much in Israel, the Israel Space Agency was cradled in controversy and political rancor, at least at the start. The IAF initially opposed its creation, believing that space was its rightful domain, while Neeman’s politics—he was also leader of the breakaway Tehiya party, which had seceded from Likud to protest the peace treaty with Egypt—didn’t help its cause with Israel’s other political parties. (In fact, because of him, Ehud Barak when he was prime minister tried to shut the ISA down altogether.)

But Defense Minister Moshe Arens managed to preserve the agency. Himself a trained aeronautical engineer, in 1984 Arens told Israel Aerospace Industries (then Israel Aircraft Industries) to partner with other Israeli companies to design and build a series of reconnaissance satellites for Israel, and to build a system powerful enough to launch them into orbit.

Thus, in 1988, after two failed attempts, Israel officially joined the space age with the successful launch of the Ofek-1 satellite using the IAI-built three-stage Shavit rocket. (Ofek means “horizon” in Hebrew.) Israel had become just the eighth country to develop, produce, and send into orbit its own satellites.

Today, the skies are populated with not one but many Ofek recon satellites of several models and generations. Those were followed by the AMOS series of satellites, used for communication, and the EROS series, used for commercial purposes (notably, they have the ability to photograph objects as small as two feet across). There’s also the TecSAR series, which ranks among the world’s most advanced space systems and is fitted with a large dish-like antenna to transmit and receive radar signals that can penetrate darkness and any thickness of clouds. Most recently, in March 2023 a new series of Ofek weather and reconnaissance satellites came online.

 

III. Space and the Start-Up Nation

 

Given the overriding importance of Israel’s space program for the nation’s existence, it’s not surprising that Palmahim is Israel’s main spaceport as well as a key IAF air base. That facility puts Israel in elite company: only twenty countries around the world have active spaceports able to support orbital launches. The base is also home to the development and production of missile and propulsion systems; satellite communication systems; the space-related activities of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which is responsible for the third-stage motor for the Shavit launch vehicle; Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI); and Elbit Systems, which develops and produces the kind of sophisticated electro-optic observation equipment and applications needed for surveillance from space.

Meanwhile, around the edge of IAI and IAS an entire start-up industry has grown, of which SpaceIL and the Beresheet program are only the most conspicuous representatives. All in all, the sector has wider horizons—and more exotic technologies—than its founders ever imagined.

In an interview with a space-focused publication, Doron Zauer, general partner at a venture-capital firm serving Israel’s space industry, offered a helpful summary of Israel’s start-up economy as it stands some fifteen years after Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s classic Start-Up Nation:

Israel is home to over 6,000 active start-ups, the highest per capita in the world, and hosts 68 unicorns, again leading the world on a per capita basis. It also has the third-highest number of NASDAQ-listed companies globally, trailing only behind the U.S. and China. Lastly, Israel stands as the highest percentage of engineers and scientists per capita and second globally in terms of investment and research as a proportion of its GDP.

That start-up fever has spilled over, predictably, into the space sector. In 2022, the ISA announced it would set aside NIS 600 million ($180 million) over the next five years to back support new companies developing advanced technologies. As reported in the Times of Israel:

Among the targets presented by the agency are doubling the number of Israeli space companies from about 60 currently to at least 120, quadrupling the number of people employed in the space industry, from 2,500 to 10,000, increasing the number of space researchers in academia, and boosting Israel’s presence in international space-related organizations.

The culture of the new industry will sound familiar to readers of Start-Up Nation: it starts with a bias toward individual entrepreneurship, innovation and improvisation, and a notable willingness to fail.  “Success is best, but failure is not a stigma,” as Senor and Singer put it, “it’s an important experience for your resume.”

Or, as Dr. Shimrit Maman, senior scientist and director for the Earth and Planetary Image Facility at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said in an interview with Space News, “It is how we are encouraged to think. We nurture not only innovation but also creative problem solving. Combine that with courage, [and] you get a lot of great results.”

This spirit was there at the birth of the Beresheet mission. SpaceIL was formed as a nonprofit organization in 2011 to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize. The SpaceIL team managed to raise $20 million to pay for a team to design a robotic system that would make a soft landing on the moon, then move it at least 1,650 feet on the lunar surface, all the while sending high-resolution imagery home to earth.

Space IL was competing with four other teams. But in January 2018, the X Prize Foundation announced that, since none of them could promise to make a launch attempt in time for the X Prize’s March 31, 2018 deadline, the $30 million prize would go unclaimed.

That didn’t stop SpaceIL. On the contrary, it plunged ahead, first by building the Beresheet lander using private funding and then linking up with SpaceX to conduct the launch from Cape Canaveral. It is plunging ahead even after the crash landing. It was recognized for this spirit: after the crash landing, the X Prize Foundation gave the SpaceIL team a $1 million consolation “Moonshot Award” in recognition of its feat of at least landing on the surface of the moon.

Learning from past mistakes is exactly how Tal Riesenfeld decided to study what went wrong with the tragic explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Columbia in 2003—the explosion that killed the first Israeli to go into space, IAF Colonel Ilan Ramon.

Riesenfeld was a former IDF special-forces operator studying at Harvard Business School when he got his hands on a report comparing the Columbia failure with the near-failure of Apollo 13 in 1970. What Riesenfeld found was that in the Apollo 13 case, the lead flight director Gene Kranz was able to adjust his team to the rapidly changing circumstances and improvise solutions, whereas the concerns of the engineers who had discovered the soon-to-be-fatal pieces of loose foam on the Columbia even before its launch were overruled so that NASA could stay on schedule.

Here were two different NASA cultures. The first was animated by the same virtues that had sustained the moon-landing program from its start; the other had become more cautious and more routinized. The first was able to avert disaster in time; the other virtually guaranteed disaster by ignoring information that contradicted its focus on getting its spacecraft launched on time and on budget.

Riesenfeld’s findings are summed up in Start-Up Nation:

The study’s authors explained that organizations were structured under one of two models: a standardized model, where routine and systems govern everything, including strict compliance with timelines and budgets, or an experimental model, where every day, every exercise, and every piece of new information is evaluated and debated in a culture that resembles an R & D laboratory.

As Riesenfeld put it, “What Gene Kranz did at NASA—which American historians hold up as model leadership—is an example of what is expected from many Israeli commanders in the battlefield.” It’s also what characterizes the CEOs and engineers raised in Israel’s space industry.

Ironically, Ramon himself had underlined that mindset when he spoke to reporters as he was boarding the Columbia. “The route to the target is more important than the target,” he had explained. “We are going to go for the target, but we enjoy the route as well.”

In that sense, the Israeli space mission is not just about achieving its objectives but focusing on what is learned as it does so, whether that’s orbiting in space or increasing the nation’s technological knowledge—or, say, getting young people more interested in science, technology, engineering, and math.

 

IV. Space Training

 

Workforce concerns have become endemic for the U.S. space industry, which needs to attract enough new talent and muscle to its production lines to remain a global leader.

On the bright side, there’s been a steady expansion of the commercial space industry in America since 2006. According to the Space Foundation, “the private space sector has grown by 18 percent over the past five years.” On the less positive side, the average age of U.S. space/aerospace engineers today is 44 years. Fully 22 percent of those engineers qualify for benefits as senior citizens.

Without enough engineers, technicians, and line workers to design, build, and assemble the components that power satellites and rockets, the U.S. is doomed to fall behind China and its surging space sector. If current enrollment patterns for both countries continue, by 2025 China’s yearly STEM PhD graduates (77,179) will be nearly double those in the United States (39,959).

This problem is less apparent in Israel, especially in its space sector. Although it has, of course, a much smaller absolute number of engineers than either the U.S. or China—not to mention Japan or India—Israel has a relatively high per-capita rate of them, enough to serve the country’s and the industry’s demands.

In recent years, the percentage of Israeli college students enrolling in computer science, math, and engineering degrees has increased dramatically. And a large percentage of those embarked on this STEM path are women. Nearly 60 percent of 25-34-year-old women have “tertiary qualification,” meaning post-18 or post-secondary education and training. And while the nation hasn’t achieved full gender parity yet, Israeli women are engaged in engineering, manufacturing, and IT at a rate that significantly exceeds the average across the 38 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“Growing up in Israel, as a woman, you have the sense that you are Wonder Woman,” Maman told Space News. “If you ask every girl, ‘Are you able to be that?’ She would say, ‘Yes!”

Continuing that trend is one reason why the government is pressing ahead with its Tevel program, where junior-high-school and high-school students of both sexes join in space-related projects, like building satellites. Maman, meanwhile, is involved in two other Israeli initiatives to get more women into the space sector. WiSpace promotes gender equality in the Israeli space community, while She Space is an educational project from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev that exposes high-school-age girls to STEM subjects.

Knowing a good thing when it sees it, ISA has supported both initiatives, a good example of how it sees its role as reaching beyond just developing and funding space missions. Other organizations, like the Ramon Foundation—named after Ilan Ramon—offer something similar, like programs aimed at kids as young as kindergarten. Israeli youngsters learn about basic scientific and physical concepts such as gravity and microgravity, and learn how to conduct experiments related to space exploration and space science.

 

V. The Ecosystem

 

Today there are relatively senior members of the space industry who work alongside the major players—IAI, Raphael Defense Systems, and Elbit Systems. These include Spacecom, which owns and operates the AMOS series of communication satellites; Gilat Satellite Networks; and ImageSat International, founded in 1997, which offers space-imagery production and analytics.

But a host of other companies are moving into more exotic niches, of which the following is only a partial list.

One is Noohra, a company that develops a patented short-wave infrared-imaging system that allows it to monitor greenhouse-gas emissions from satellite, drone, and ground platforms.

Another is Helios, which is trying to build oxygen-propellant systems for spaceships. Helios’s interest in generating oxygen for industrial use has expanded beyond space. It uses the same technology to forge so-called “green steel” from non-fossil-fuel power sources, a good example of how technologies developed for space use can have wider applications here on earth.

WeSpace Technologies, meanwhile, develops thruster-propelled drones that can operate efficiently in lunar or Mars-like conditions. (Its CTO, Yigal Harel, served as program director for the Beresheet lunar lander.)

Another notable company is Lulav Space, an Israeli start-up that helped with Beresheet and that specializes in robotics, guidance, navigation, and control systems, computer vision, and simulation. Lulav too creates sensors for terrestrial uses, including for drones and UAVs.

Getting space flights to operate right means measuring time in space right. Just as accurate longitude measurements opened up maritime navigation in the 18th century, so the ability of the Israeli company FEI Zyfer’s ability to design, develop and fabricate oscillators for spacecraft clocks has allowed it to seize an 80-percent of the world’s market share. It’s also worth noting that FEI creates the precision clocks that guide the missiles for Iron Dome.

Then there is StemRad, a joint Israeli-American company headquartered in Tampa as well as Tel Aviv. StemRad develops and manufactures personal equipment that protects against ionizing radiation in space, which can give astronauts radiation sickness and raise the risk of cancer. Its first product was the 360 Gamma, a device that protects the user’s pelvic-bone marrow from gamma radiation.

Space Plasmatics (SPX) develops and manufactures plasma thrusters, which are more efficient and lightweight than traditional chemical thrusters. This makes SPX’s thrusters ideal for nanosatellites, which are small and have limited power and weight budgets. As the space engineer and advocate Robert Zubrin has argued, plasma technology may well be the future of propulsion into deep space.

SPX’s thrusters were successfully tested in space on the RAKIA nanosatellite, which was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2022. RAKIA was the first nanosatellite to use plasma thrusters for propulsion, and also the first Israeli mission to the International Space Station. Its star passenger was IAF Major Eytan Stebbe, the second Israeli to go into space.

At the more exotic end of the Israeli space start-up community is Algae Singularity, based in Beersheba since 2022, which grows algae in space using floating flexible plastic enclosures and photo-bioreactors with semi-permeable membranes. The goal is to use algae to clean wastewater, capture carbon dioxide, and ultimately produce a form of biofuel.

As any American venture capitalist will tell you, start-ups come and start-ups go. In the U.S., 63 percent of tech start-ups fail after five years. Fully one-quarter shut their doors during their first year. In Israel, a recent study revealed that 50 percent of start-ups fail in their first year, and another 46 percent go under within the first 3.5 years.

If the numbers seem daunting, it’s worth bearing in mind that most venture capitalists are looking for the one winner that will pay for all the failures and more. Dan Blumberg, the chairman of ISA, explained to Space Ambition how Israel is able to maintain a growing space ecosystem in such a challenging environment:

In Israel, academia spearheads most of the long-term, high-risk research, while the bulk of development is handled by the industry. In the “Valley of Death,” the critical gap between academic research and industrial application, additional governmental funding is made accessible through the Israel Innovation Authority, a part of the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology.

That may not be entirely the formula for success for America’s space industry, where private venture capital also plays a critical role in providing the funding that keeps start-ups alive long enough to become viable. But it’s an indication of how tight the links among academia, industry, and government in Israel have become to advance a future technological frontier—links the United States should be eager to take advantage of.

 

VI. American-Israeli Cooperation

 

Overall, it must be said that cooperation in space technology has not been as close as in other areas of the alliance between the two friends. To take one example, in a recent notable policy meeting, discussions of space lost out to issues dearer to the Biden administration’s agenda, like climate change, clean energy, water re-use, and food security. However, thanks to the latest developments in quantum technology, that may be about to change.

Quantum communication is now a highly contested technology of national-security importance. In it, a quantum satellite wanting to communicate with a ground station uses pairs of photons that are inextricably linked (or “entangled,” as it’s referred to in one of the core precepts of quantum physics). By way of another strange feature of quantum physics, the quantum-entangled link means that any attempt to intercept the signal immediately severs the link, making hacking it impossible. As such, quantum-communication satellites will become hubs of not only a future quantum Internet, but hubs for hack-proof networks for classified data and communications. Any such unhackable technology is something of a holy grail of both computing and great-power competition.

Unfortunately, it is also a technology in which China took an early lead in 2016, when it created the world’s first quantum satellite; since then, a European Union consortium, a Singapore-based consortium, and a UK-based consortium have been in hot pursuit. There are not many areas in space technology where Israel is running ahead of the U.S., but quantum communication might be one. Quantum technology is a sector where Israel barely registered five years ago, but that’s not the case anymore, as the nation plays host to several major quantum-focused firms.

In January 2023, a new nanosatellite developed by Tel Aviv University researchers was launched into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The 7.9-inch nanosatellite, named TAU-SAT3, is the first Israeli satellite built to advance research into optical and quantum communication from space. At an altitude of 342 miles, TAU-SAT3 will orbit the earth for about five years to conduct several scientific missions while sending communication signals back to a ground station set up on the roof of a building at the TAU campus.

In the U.S., by contrast, there has been little progress in such quantum communication, although NASA is now among the government agencies included in Congress’s recent reauthorization of the National Quantum Initiative. This means that America could very much use an Israeli helping hand.

 

VIII. “Moon Landscape”

 

The story of America and Israel in space is also the story of a fourteen-year-old victim of the Holocaust.

On being asked to join the Columbia mission, Ilan Ramon, knowing it would be a historic occasion, decided to commemorate it in a unique way. In memory of all the Jews who had perished in the Holocaust, he asked Yad Vashem to provide him with a relic to take with him.

The Yad Vashem team selected a drawing done by Petr Ginz, an aspiring artist, while he was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, before he perished at Auschwitz at age fourteen. Titled “Moon Landscape,” it is an imaginative drawing of what the earth would look when like seen from the moon. Yad Vashem made a copy of it and gave it to Ramon, and, when Columbia exploded in mid-air, he had it with him, along with his personal journal, which he was still writing in. The drawing didn’t survive the disaster, but miraculously, pages from the diary did. “The world looks so marvelous from up here,” he wrote. “Today was the first day that I felt that I am truly living in space. I have become a man who lives and works in space.”

Petr Ginz’s memory lived on during another mission to the ISS in 2018, when the NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, who had worked with Ramon, took another copy of “Moon Landscape” with him on his own journey.

A year later, when the Beresheet launch got underway, “Moon Landscape” came into its own in an even more appropriate way. As Yad Yashem’s chair Avner Shalev explained:

The Beresheet lunar landing is an auspicious moment in Jewish history and an amazing achievement for the state of Israel. Over the last century, mankind has turned to the stars for inspiration and hope for a better future. Peter Ginz also was fascinated by the moon and space. His now famous drawing “Moon Landscape” reflects, with remarkable accuracy, how he believed the earth would look from the moon. Moreover, it illustrated his desire to reach a place from where the earth, which threatened his life, could be seen from a secure range.

So, in the shadow of October 7, and the revival of the threat of anti-Semitism which the Holocaust epitomizes, it is important to remember that the Israelis who are venturing into space are also remembering the past, and working to defend Israel from its present enemies, just as the ISA’s founders did more than 40 years ago.

But ultimately, of course, it’s a fascination with the future that draws humans to space, a fascination that Israelis share. According to the World Economic Forum, the global space economy is set to reach $1.8 trillion by 2035. It’s difficult to guess how far humanity’s reach into space will have extended by then. But when problems do arise, such as making the surface of Mars bloom, or sending robots to the moon of Jupiter, or simply setting up an intra-space internet, there will surely be Israeli engineers working on the answer.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli technology, Space exploration, Start-up nation