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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

January 16, 2003

ISRAEL’S SHOESTRING SPACE PROGRAM

Michael Cabbage in the Orlando Sentinel,

Israel quietly is overcoming huge political and financial obstacles to build a world-class space program with a growing military capability.

[Today’s] launch of astronaut Ilan Ramon aboard space shuttle Columbia will add Israel to the ranks of 30 other countries that have had a citizen in orbit. However, the small Jewish state already belongs to a far more exclusive club: Nations capable of building a satellite, launching it into space and operating it from the ground. It's a capability that has major strategic and commercial implications for the Middle East and beyond.

"We are in an area where we are quite alone," said Aby Har-Even, director of the Israel Space Agency. "We cannot buy things so we have to build everything for ourselves."

With little help, Israel already has developed a rocket booster that can double as a medium-range missile, as well as advanced spy and communications satellites. Now, the country is attempting to forge closer aerospace ties worldwide, not only with Western nations, but with others including China and India. Much of the effort, including an Israeli request to perform experiments aboard the international space station, is science-related. Some of the ties, however, involve commercial deals with potential military applications that bring in desperately needed cash for Israeli industry.

"Other countries that sign agreements with us come to us not because they love Jews but because they think we can contribute something," Har-Even said. "I still believe that one day, when the political situation is more positive, we will find ourselves in very deep cooperation with other countries because they know they can win from cooperation with us."

A shrinking budget has made Har-Even's job tougher than ever. The space agency received less than $1 million from Israel's government in 2002, a tiny fraction of NASA's $14.8 billion budget. Funding for civil space projects has been slashed in recent months by economic hard times and government spending to deal with the ongoing Palestinian uprising. Even so, the country's aerospace industry continues to receive a substantial cash infusion from Israel's $9 billion military budget.

That makes income from sales to foreign customers more crucial than ever. In recent years, Israel Aircraft Industries, the country's largest aerospace contractor, and several partners have tried to break into the commercial launch market with versions of the Shavit, or Comet, booster.

Israel used the Shavit to join the Space Age in 1988 by successfully launching the Ofeq (Horizon) 1 test surveillance satellite. The small, three-stage rocket can carry lightweight payloads to low Earth orbit. A military variant of the Shavit called the Jericho-2 is a ballistic missile with a range reportedly up to 2,800 miles. The booster launches from Palmachim Air Force Base, just south of Tel Aviv on Israel's Mediterranean coast. To avoid flying over foreign territory, the Shavit must head westward over the Mediterranean Sea and pass through the Straits of Gibraltar. Traveling against the eastward direction of the Earth's rotation reduces the weight Shavit can carry and limits the orbits it can fly to.

The Shavit largely has been frozen out of the U.S. launch market by a requirement that U.S. government satellites must launch on rockets that are at least 50 percent American-made. Plans to build the booster with U.S. parts or lift off from Wallops Island in Virginia have been scuttled. Two launch failures in six attempts also have caused potential customers to question the Shavit's reliability. However, the rocket performed flawlessly on its most recent flight, hurling the Ofeq 5 military spy satellite into orbit last May…