Israel preparing to send its second astronaut into space
By David E. Kaplan
“Today, you become the envoy of everyone. Go in peace and return in peace, and do not forget to wave to us from up there. We are waiting for you here at home,” so spoke Israel’s State President
Reuven Rivlin at a special ceremony to announce that 62-year-old Eytan Stibbe, a former IDF fighter pilot is preparing to be Israel’s second astronaut in space.
Stibbe, who is scheduled for takeoff from Florida at the end of 2021, will spend 200 hours at the International Space Station where he will perform a number of experiments using Israeli technology and scientific developments thus fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of the Start-Up Nation, resolute on pursuing its path in space.
At the special ceremony at the State President’s residence, Rivlin continued:
“My dear Eytan, up there, beyond the seventh heavens, you will do Israeli technological experiments, some of which have been developed by our young people. You will be the envoy of those brilliant brains, the present and future generations of Israeli research, and will help them understand how the world works when we look at it from afar. You will be Israel’s representative in a human effort to understand the wonderful workings that allow life on this planet and uncover the secrets of the universe.”
To the Heavens and Back
Rivlin’s choice of words “RETURN in peace” was not lost on Israelis who were traumatized by the loss of their first astronaut, Ilan Ramon 17 years earlier. In 2003, this nation was unprepared as they joined billions of people staring in disbelief at their television sets as the Columbia space shuttle – with Ilan Ramon on board – disintegrated in flames as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere.
After 16 days of almost constant news coverage about “our Ilan’s” exploits in space from how he spent Shabbat (Sabbath), the various experiments he was conducting in space and what special mementos he took with him such as a prayer book to recite the Kidush (blessing)as well as a Kidush cup, a picture drawn by a 14 year-old boy who perished in Auschwitz and a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust – Israelis felt they knew him personally.
He was family!
As one newspaper at the time expressed it:
“He represented us all – our country, our people, our past and our future. He was our hero at a time when we sorely needed one.”
The son of Holocaust survivors, he represented a nation’s rebirth – the young, proud modern Israeli rising from the ashes of the Shoah (Holocaust) to a child of a new nation, reborn in its ancestral homeland and who in one generation was seeking answers to earth’s problems in the heavens.
Nearly two decades later in 2020, how perceptive and prophetic were Ilan’s words from space:
“The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so FRAGILE.”
In an age today, when the world’s peoples are living in fear and under restrictions due to the Corona pandemic, Ramon’s observation of “FRAGILE” was poignant and prescient.
This was clearly on Rivlin’s mind when he embellished with: “Because of the VIRUS, we have come to realise how many great concepts – like science, medicine and research – can fundamentally shake our lives. We have come to realise how much we do NOT know, not only about distant planets and infinitely huge galaxies, but even here on our small planet.
“Dealing with this microscopic virus, in an effort to find a vaccine, we must work together – scientists from different countries and peoples. This is the power of science. It reminds us that we are part of something much bigger that speaks to the human spirit that is within us all.”
Stibbe to the Stars
It has taken more than 17 years to reach a decision to send another Israeli into space following the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle in February 2003 as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere. Stibbe, who had been a close friend and colleague of the late Ilan Roman, said to his widow, Rona Ramon following the tragedy, that he would like to continue her husband’s dream.
In an exclusive interview I had with the late Rona Ramon in 2014 for Hilton Israel Magazine, she said of her husband:
“He has never left us – his spirit, his values and his message to future generations lives on for all time.”
Rona could so easily as well have been referring to her beloved son Assaf Ramon, who followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a pilot and was tragically killed in an Air Force training accident in 2009. Sadly, as the news later broke in 2018 that Rona too was taken before her time – at age 54 from cancer – the Jewish world could have said also about Rona, “her spirit, her values, and her message to future generations lives on for all time.” In the years following the deaths of her loved ones, she showed the same bravery, determination and grit as her husband and son as she spearheaded the perpetuation of the family legacy through the Ramon Foundation, which promotes academic excellence in Israel.
All this was evident after the first anniversary of her husband’s death, when she received the programme of the first anniversary ceremony of the Columbia tragedy to be held in 2004 at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. She saw that it did not include Hatikvah – the national anthem of Israel – so she called her friend at NASA who explained to Rona that the protocol at such ceremonies allows only for the American national anthem.
“In which case, I will not be attending,” Rona replied.
There was silence at the other end of the phone “and my friend replied he would call back. It apparently went all the way to President Bush who approved. It was the first time a foreign national anthem had ever been played on such an occasion. I felt truly proud when I stood at Arlington Cemetery listening to Hatikva.
The personal legacy of Ilan for me is his wonderful smile. I suspect he was looking upon me that day for having stood my ground defiantly and smiling.”
And so it was left to the musician of the Ramon family, Tal Ramon, to represent the Ramon family at the State President event who said of the family friend Eytan Stibbe:
“I’m very excited because I know if my mother were standing here she would put up her hands in victory like this, and speak very proudly about our friend, a friend I remember from my very first memories.” The Stibbe family, he continued, “escorted us through the years through everything we went through, the good and the bad, and their family has become our family.”
He said it was very moving that Stibbe had chosen to make this “contribution” to the citizens of Israel.
President Rivlin became poetic in expressing the loss of Ilan, Rona and Assaf:
“their absence reverberates in the heavens.”
Addressing Stibbe directly, he continued, “You are joining a family that is a shining example. A family that is a source of true Israeli inspiration and pride. The family never stopped talking about the stars, even when they fell from the skies. I am proud to stand with you today on this emotional day.”
Emphasizing the role that his mission will play in enthusing Israeli kids about science and technology, Rivlin said
“You’ll conduct a series of experiments in Israeli technologies, some of which were developed by Israeli boys and girls. You will be the messenger of those brilliant minds, present and future generations of excellent Israeli research.”
This reminded me of what Rona has said to me back in the 2014 interview after quoting from the writings of her late husband and son. From Ilan she read, ““The children and youth are the future of the development and advances in space research, especially since they are open to new creative ideas and not prisoners to old ways and therefore so important to our future in space.”
And from Assaf, she found this note in his diary following his graduation:
“My siblings and I were lucky to grow up with parents who helped us to fulfill our dreams and reach our unique potential.”
Humbled and moved when first reading these passages, Rona said these profound musings served as “my Magna Carta in founding the Ramon Foundation.”
A board member on the Ramon Foundation, Eytan Stibbe is ready to pursue the dream.
Said Stibbe at the event: “As a child, on dark nights I looked up to the stars and wondered what there is beyond what I saw.”
As an adult he is preparing to see for himself.
No doubt Eytan Stibbe will adhere to the warm request of the State President:
“do not forget to wave to us from up there.”
The people of Israel will be looking up!
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