The Israeli Post Office issued a stamp in December featuring the country's first astronaut, who is scheduled to fly on NASA's space shuttle in mid-January.
"Every time you are the first, it's meaningful," said Col. Ilan Ramon. Israel will join an elite club of 30 nations that have sent at least one citizen into orbit aboard a U.S. shuttle or a Russian Soyuz capsule. The countries include Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Syria, Costa Rica, South Africa, Poland, Afghanistan and Cuba.
"It's peculiar that it would have taken this long to fly an Israeli, given our strategic alliance with Israel," said John Pike of the Arlington, Va.-based research group, GlobalSecurity.org. "I mean, we flew a Saudi almost 20 years ago."
Prince Sultan Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, flew as a guest on the space shuttle in June 1985, ostensibly to oversee the release of a Saudi-owned communications satellite. After the Challenger accident six months later, NASA banned nonastronauts -- and commercial satellites -- from the shuttles.
Israel has had a thriving, if low-key, space program for two decades. The Israel Space Agency was established in 1983 to nurture and oversee industrial and scientific programs that would pave the way for an indigenous space program.
Israel concentrated its efforts on developing a small, expendable launcher, which was based on its Jericho 2 medium-range ballistic missile, and pioneering a series of small but powerful remote sensing satellites.
The Shavit, which means "comet" in Hebrew, is a 59-foot-long, three-stage, solid-fuel rocket designed to carry payloads weighing about 700 pounds into orbits roughly 300 miles above Earth. To avoid dropping spent rocket segments on neighboring countries, Israel launches its spacecraft against the planet's easterly rotational spin from a coastal launch site south of Tel Aviv.
The Shavit has a mixed track record, with two of six flights failing to deliver their payloads into the proper orbit.
Israel Aircraft Industries, which manufactures and operates the Shavit program for the Israel Space Agency, has formed partnerships to market commercial versions of the Shavit booster. Efforts have been hampered, however, by a worldwide glut of launch vehicles and a shortage of satellites to orbit.
"Work is proceeding, but slowly," said Rick Kelley of Orlando-based Coleman Aerospace.
Israel has had more success parlaying its small satellite programs into commercial venues. Israel Aircraft Industries' Ofeq spacecraft, a remote sensing eye-in-the-sky used by the country's military agencies, has a civilian cousin called the Earth Resources Observation Satellite (EROS).
Images from EROS-A, which was launched in 2000, are marketed by Cyprus-based ImageSat International, a subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries and Elbit Systems' Elop division.
A more powerful spacecraft, EROS-B, is scheduled for launch in 2004. Israel plans to increase the constellation to eight spacecraft.
Israel also has developed a low-cost communications satellite called the Afro-Mediterranean Orbital System (AMOS). Built by Israel Aircraft Industries in partnership with Alcatel Espace of France and Daimler-Benz Aerospace of Germany, the first AMOS spacecraft was carried into orbit by a European Ariane 4 rocket in 1996. AMOS 2 is scheduled for launch in 2003.
The 2,000-pound AMOS spacecraft is Israel's most successful commercial space product so far. China selected the Israeli satellite over European designs for up to 10 spacecraft purchased by Hong Kong Satellite Technology Group, which is owned by the Chinese government.
China wants the satellites, in part, to support television broadcasts of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and plans to launch the satellites on its Long March expendable boosters.
Ramon's presence in space, however, is intended to highlight Israel's well-established science and environmental research programs, not its commercial and military uses of space.
"Israel has a lot to offer," said Ramon, who will spend much of his 16 days in orbit operating an experiment that tracks dust particles in the atmosphere, in an attempt to learn how aerosols affect global weather patterns and rainfall.
Ramon also will oversee several experiments designed by schoolchildren from Australia, China, Japan, Israel and the United States.
"Science is done for humankind, wherever they are," Ramon said. "It's every scientist's obligation to share his findings, and this goes for every experiment that we are going to do during this mission."
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