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Space — The Final Frontier

Trying to Conquer Barriers to Further Space Exploration


Herzliya, Israel — Exactly 10 years ago, Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was killed along with all of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia when a tragic accident occurred during re-entry. At a Herzliya conference this week, 14 heads of space agencies from around the world gathered to remember Ramon and to consider the future of space exploration.


“This conference commemorates the amazing life of Ilan Ramon by fostering cooperation among nations,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) head Charles Bolden told the hundreds of attendees, including many Israeli air force officers. “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.”


Many of the attendees knew Ramon well, but for some the conference was even more personal. Dr. Jonathan Clark, today a professor of space medicine at Baylor University, lost his wife Laurel, an astronaut, in the tragedy as well. Clark gave Ramon his first pre-flight physical.


"The Columbia crew paid with their life for us to know what it means to fly in high-risk environments,” Clark told The Media Line. “They gave their lives in the pursuit of exploration for all of mankind and it’s their legacy for us to continue on in their spirit. It fires me up even more to pursue exploration.”


He is working on safety equipment that will enable astronauts in trouble to eject more easily and to land more safely.


There have been some major successes since Ramon’s death. The International Space Station (ISS), a research laboratory, is up and running, and has been visited by astronauts from 15 countries.


“The ISS is our toehold to the rest of the solar system,” Bolden said. “It is a tangible symbol of unprecedented international cooperation.”


In Israel, quasi-governmental companies such as Rafael have been active in satellite production. Israel has launched a series of satellites for both commercial and military purposes. But several Israeli officials at the conference said Israel needs to spend more.


“When I was the head of the space program, my budget was very, very small,” Aby Har Even, who was in charge during Ramon’s time, told The Media Line. “Most of our achievements in space are in the defense area – I hope we can also make progress in the scientific area.”


But even with larger budgets, some scientists feel like they are hitting the wall in space exploration.


“We are just at the very, very beginning of any space exploration objectives because of the limits of what the technology can do and the challenges of applying it,” former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe told The Media Line. “We’re in the functional equivalent of the Age of Sail (when boats had no outside power source) right now in the space exploration business and we’re aspiring to the Age of Steam. We’re not there yet; it’s going to take the next technology leap to get us to that.”


O’Keefe believes that Israel has a role to play in getting to that next level of technology.


“The entrepreneurial spirit of the Israeli people is so overwhelmingly strong,” he said. “You have honed the idea of using whatever you have to respond to the situation.”


The audience seemed primarily male, and several speakers stressed the need for more women in the space field.


“It is just the blink of an eye – just 50 years since the launch of Sputnik 1 and it is amazing how far we have come,” Lieutenant General Susan Helms, the commander of the 14th air force and a former astronaut who holds the record for the longest space walk at just under nine hours, told the conference. “We see Israel as a strong partner and fellow space-faring nation.”