What Israel Can Do in Space

The plummeting cost of sending things to space will enable a small state like Israel to play on a very big field.

An astronaut prepares to enter a sealed habitat during a training mission for a trip to Mars at the Ramon Crater in Mitzpe Ramon in Israel’s southern Negev desert on October 10, 2021. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

An astronaut prepares to enter a sealed habitat during a training mission for a trip to Mars at the Ramon Crater in Mitzpe Ramon in Israel’s southern Negev desert on October 10, 2021. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

June 26 2024
About the author

Rand Simberg is a space consultant and founder with over four decades of industry experience. He has written extensively about space and is author of Safe Is Not An Option, a book on how our risk aversion in space activities is holding us back.

In his June Mosaic article, “Israel in Space,” Arthur Herman provides an excellent overview and history of Israel’s space capabilities. But it is important to understand both Israel’s current limitations and its potential space opportunities for the future in the context of the massive disruption in the space industry that will be occasioned by SpaceX’s Starship becoming operational well within this decade.

While it’s understandable that Israel doesn’t want to depend on other nations for the delivery of critical orbital assets for its national security, it (like most countries) is geographically disadvantaged for getting into space from its own territory. With the exception of earth-observation satellites in sun-synchronous orbit at 98-degrees inclination, most orbital launches have eastward azimuths, which allow them to take advantage of the earth’s rotation. However, if Israel were to conduct such launches from its base at Palmachim, it would overfly both its own territory and hostile neighbors, risking casualties from failed launch attempts. So it launches toward the west, over the Mediterranean, with a significant reduction in mass delivered to orbit, having to fight the planet’s rotation rather than benefiting from it. This restricts the use of its launchers for the commercial market, because few if any customers have a desire to get into the few retrograde orbits to which it can deliver satellites.

In addition, its Shavit orbital rocket (whose lower stages are based on the Jericho ballistic missile) is old, expendable solid-motor technology, overdue for an upgrade in an age of reusability, which America and other nations are rapidly entering. This shift to reusability has been inspired by SpaceX’s Falcon rocket family, which has now successfully recovered and reused booster stages hundreds of consecutive times, resulting in dramatic cost reductions. So if Israel wants to control its own fate in launch, and become a player in the commercial launch market, it has to deal with these two issues: geography and technology.

Besides these, another major change is likely on its way: launches will ultimately be based on ocean platforms (as the now-defunct Sea Launch did with Ukrainian Zenit rockets). This is for two reasons. First, rockets the size of SpaceX’s Starship (which is planned to increase in size from the current test vehicles) will be unable to launch near populated areas due to the window- and eardrum-breaking acoustic energy, creating pressure to move their launch and landing operations offshore.

Second, once sea launch/landing becomes routine, it will become apparent that the best location for such platforms will be at the equator, to maximize the advantage provided by the planet’s spin and thus payload to orbit. While orbits of any inclination can be attained from the equator, that latitude also uniquely allows delivery of payloads to equatorial low earth orbit (ELEO), an orbit currently almost completely unused, but of potentially high value, for many reasons beyond the scope of this article. But for those reasons, it can be thought of as earth’s natural harbor. Whoever dominates there will dominate not just cislunar space (the region of earth and its moon) but the rest of the solar system.

For terrestrial navies, the 20th century was the age of the aircraft carrier; we recently commemorated the 82nd anniversary of the battle of Midway, which was the turning point in the Pacific war just a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor (and which would not have happened if the carriers had been in port there with the battleships). Rapid advances in drone and other technology, currently being honed in Ukraine (and of increasing concern in the Red and South China Seas), may make aircraft carriers obsolete, just as carriers superseded battleships in World War II, but the 21st century may be the age of spaceship carriers, and every great power will have them for access to and from space, and particularly to ELEO. So if Israel wants to retain autonomy in getting serious payloads into space, and become a serious player in commercial launch, it should be planning to expand its own navy to provide access to and from orbit with its own fleet of spaceship carriers and space transports, operated from the equator off the eastern coast of Africa.

So what might Israel do as it moves into the 21st century with its space activities?

As Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX often says, few people, even in the space industry, understand the implications of sending very large payloads into orbit at a low cost per pound. Cheap mass in orbit changes everything in terms of what we will do in space and how we will do it, and Israel, whether it provides its own capability or purchases it from SpaceX and others, will be able to leverage that revolutionary change. Low-cost launch means that the cost of doing everything in space will come down, because the traditional high cost of space hardware has been driven by the high cost of launch. In Israel’s case, imagine an instrument similar in size to the Hubble space telescope at a small fraction of the price of the original, except that instead of being in low earth orbit, it is in a slot in geostationary orbit, where many communications and weather satellites are located. Rather than looking out into the universe, it could be looking down on the Middle East, harnessing artificial intelligence, enabling continuous monitoring of activities there, rather than just seeing the region when a low-altitude satellite occasionally passes over.

But beyond national security, the commercial space opportunities are huge, and growing. With low-cost access to ELEO, Israel could become a hub for space research, space assembly, and space manufacturing. As with space technology, Israel’s pharmaceutical and biotech industries punch far above their weight. Teva is a leading manufacturer of generic drugs, and the biotech research at the Weizmann Institute, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology is world class. The continuous free fall of orbit presents opportunities for research that cannot be performed in the gravity of earth, which disrupts important phenomena in fields such as crystal growth and cellular activity. Such research is already being performed by Spacepharma, a collaboration between Israel and Italy. The company has developed mini-labs that can be used in both crewed and uncrewed orbital platforms. The opportunities presented by a low-cost pipeline of mass to and from orbit will only expand their activity, and they will be joined by other Israeli companies, both existing ones and new start-ups.

There are several commercial space stations being planned, mostly in the U.S., but there is nothing to keep Israel from building its own as the cost to do so plunges. These will be used for research, but they may also be used as factories for products that result from that research which can only be produced in space. At least three companies—Vast, Above Space, and Gravitics—are planning rotating facilities that won’t be useful for weightless research, but will be useful for partial-gravity research to understand potential health issues for lunar and Martian outposts, with their lower gravity. Some will offer full earth gravity to allow tourists to visit orbital resorts for the views while not suffering from space sickness and deterioration of the muscles and bones, and other debilitating effects of free fall currently suffered by astronauts at the International Space Station. (It’s worth noting that many of these effects are similar to those of aging, but can be somewhat recovered from on return to earth).

Such facilities may also serve as quarters for construction crew of large assemblies, such as telescopes, or vehicles for excursions to the moon, or even the outer solar system. They could potentially even be used to construct large solar collectors in space, where the sun always shines, to beam carbon-free electrical power down to earth, perhaps by utilizing materials from the moon. Israel could collect it from large offshore antennae in the Mediterranean. What’s more, these facilities could even function as hotels for people on their way to or from other destinations in cislunar space or the solar system.

Ultimately, such facilities may even expand in size to provide rotating habitats for permanent communities with hundreds or thousands of people, with gravity levels varying from zero at the axis to full earth gravity at the outer sections.

And here is perhaps an ultimate goal of an Israeli space industry: Theodore Herzl and other pioneers had at times considered Argentina or east Africa as a home of the new Jewish state, especially if Zion itself remained off limits; the Zionist idea did not necessarily require that it be located in ancient Canaan. Elon Musk has stated that his goal for SpaceX is to make humanity a “multi-planet species.” While I am very far from a scholar in such matters, I’m unaware of anything in either the Torah or the Talmud that would prohibit extraterrestrial Jewish communities. One could imagine Israel being the political and spiritual hub for a new, interplanetary voluntary diaspora. In the book of Genesis, God promises Jacob that his offspring will “burst forth to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south.” Why not also up, into the vastness of the  solar system, and ultimately the rest of the universe?

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