Israel Falling Behind in Space Research, Warns Outgoing Agency Chief

Zvi Kaplan says Israel is missing out on a multi-billion dollar market.

In the third floor of an office building on Hamelacha Street in Tel Aviv, at the end of a short corridor, one can find an undistinguished door with the sign: "Israel Space Agency." This unpretentious four-and-a-half-room apartment hosts the heads of leading foreign space agencies when they visit Israel.

These days, Zvi Kaplan, the director general of the ISA, is about to end his term in office after seven years as head of the agency. The ISA has no need for a larger office. It has no more than four full-time employees: Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, a secretary and two consultants. The rest of the ISA's needs are supplied by the Science and Technology Ministry, which funds the ISA. According to Kaplan, Israel is the only country in the world with a space agency that hardly has a budget of its own, a fact that obviously affects the agency's achievements.

Zvi Kaplan - David Bachar - October 2011
Israel Space Agency director general Zvi Kaplan at his Tel Aviv office.David Bachar

When Kaplan is asked about the ISA's large projects in its 30-year history he mentions the following projects: the development of a propulsions system by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems for the Dutch microsatellite Sloshsat; TAUVEX - the production and launching of a space telescope for the exploration of the ultraviolet sky from space, a project that eventually never materialized; the French-Israeli microsatellite VENUS, whose development is delayed; an Italian-Israeli satellite project in the early planning stages; the first Israeli astronaut in the Columbia shuttle - a direct result of an agreement in 1995 between Shimon Peres and U.S. President Bill Clinton, according to the Science Ministry's website; and the annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference, a joint initiative by The Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, the ISA, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ramon Foundation.

A cover for military activity

The beginning was very different. The ISA was founded in the early 1980s by then-Science Minister Yuval Ne'eman as the National Space Knowledge Center. Kaplan recalls that the Hebrew acronym SELA was kept even after the name was changed, because Ne'eman didn't take to the Hebrew acronym SAHI (colloquial Hebrew for "not stoned").

The Israeli space program was first and foremost a military initiative. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty restrained Israel's intelligence activities and officials were keen on the development of new espionage satellites. Avi Har-Even, who headed the ISA for 10 years before Kaplan, told Haaretz that the ISA was probably a cover for military and security uses of space technologies.

"Since the whole sphere of the use of space was highly classified, the ISA was the only body that could speak publicly in various international forums," he says. "When one starts asking questions about space, he's immediately asked 'why are you interested?' When you have a space agency, it's different. If our scientists wanted to appear, ask questions and share their knowledge, they could only do so on behalf of the ISA, and that enabled the military industry to ask questions and gain information."

Today, still, military industries are at the cutting edge of space studies in Israel. At least half the Israeli satellites are espionage satellites. Har-Even and Kaplan claim that during their terms at the ISA both of them began separating the agency's military and civilian activities. "Many countries would refuse to cooperate with us if they knew we were part of the Israeli military establishment," says Kaplan.

The TAUVEX project, launched in the early 1990s, was "the first real project of the ISA," according to Kaplan. Recently, after years of delays, it was finally abandoned after the state had invested NIS 18 million, and Elbit's ELOP invested millions more. The telescope was supposed to be launched with an Indian satellite, but was rejected by the Indians at the last minute because of its weight. The investment in the project wasn't a complete waste, however, since it had some scientific achievements - but the telescope itself never left the laboratory, and probably never will. "In hindsight, we can assume that we miscalculated the risks in the project," admits Kaplan.

The VENUS project is also experiencing difficulties because of the cooperation between Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries. "The Defense Ministry demands coordination and merging of industries, so part of the reasons for the project was that coordination," says Kaplan.

International cooperation

One of Kaplan's main goals as head of the ISA was cooperation with other space agencies. "We actually orchestrated the cooperation with France in the VENUS project, initiated the cooperation with the Italian Space Agency, indirectly assisted Israel's achievements as part of Europe's seventh Research and Development project and cooperated with India in the TAUVEX project, even if that didn't work out in the end. We're also discussing forms of cooperation with Russia. On a smaller level we also germinated several smaller cooperations that ultimately didn't work out."

According to Tal Inbar, head of the space center at The Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, "The ISA is a very small and poor institution. As a result, the number of projects it can initiate and its budget are also very small. A huge part of the pacts signed by the ISA - and one should be pleased with each and every one of them - are likely to remain on paper if the the Israeli government won't back them with a substantial budget."

A market worth billions of dollars

Meidad Pariente, CEO of Spacecialist, a company specializing in satellite services, claims that the massive investment in military oriented space programs harms the civilian projects that his company backs. "I cannot recall a substantial Israeli investment in a serious space engineering program that wasn't made through the Defense Ministry," he says.

Pariente claims that the problem is that "Israel has no space policy."

It seems that Kaplan would concur. He claims that most developed countries invest between 0.05 percent and 0.1 percent of their GDP in civilian space programs.

In June 2010 the ISA submitted a report to the prime minister and president, calling for Israel to take steps that would place it as a serious player in the global space market by budgeting the country's space infrastructure. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, a sound and considered investment could allow Israel to capture a $6 billion to $10 billion share of the global space market within 10 years.

The ISA and Science Ministry asked the government for an annual investment in civilian space programs of NIS 300 million for the next five years, but after negotiations the sum dropped to NIS 165 million for only two years. The Finance Ministry has yet to finally approve even this budget.

Kaplan claims that one of the most important changes required is to guarantee the ISA's independence. "Being a part of the ministry is wrong, especially when we consider the personal status of the ISA director general. There is no other space agency in the world that isn't an independent body. Well, maybe Belgium, but all its work is done through the European Space Agency."

Answering these claims, a Ministry of Science and Technology spokesperson stressed that "the capability of a government ministry to allocate budgets to the ISA is larger than that of an independent body. Moreover, the Ministry of Science and Technology sees the space program as a top priority, and that is expressed in the budgets already secured for the ISA and the efforts underway to budget a larger space program."

Kaplan warmly acknowledges the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology, but says: "We would like to have 10-12 employees. At this point not one of ministry's employees thinks he's working for us."