Earth to Space Minister: Israel's Space Industry in Dire Straits

The technology and space minister never demonstrated much interest in space issues, not until an exploded Israeli satellite brought a horde of journalists to his office, that is.

Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis talks to the press in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis was beside himself with joy on Sunday. In his wildest dreams, he never imagined so many journalists crowding into his sleepy Tel Aviv office. But after a pre-launch test of the launching rocket destroyed the Amos 6 satellite last week, media interest – unlike the satellite – took off.

Akunis invited the heads of every agency and company involved in Israel’s space program to an urgent meeting on Sunday. The journalists who came to cover its start outnumbered the actual participants.

In his opening remarks, Akunis told the participants that he invited them “to hear initial proposals for how you recommend acting henceforth. The goal is to formulate a space and assistance policy for the State of Israel, to maintain the enormous advantages Israel’s space industries have. Our space industry is magnificent and will remain magnificent, and we’ll take care to bolster its status.”

Akunis isn’t exactly known as a mover and shaker on space issues, nor has he even demonstrated much interest in them before. The distress of Israel’s aerospace industry has been an open secret for at least two years, and many of the people at Sunday’s meeting gave detailed explanations of the problems to a subcommittee of the Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee back in May. Akunis, however, didn’t attend that meeting.

At May’s Knesset meeting, the Israel Space Agency presented several interesting projects, but also described the problems caused by lack of funds and uncertainty.

“There’s no funded national program,” said agency director Avi Blasberger, adding that no civilian projects were even planned for after next year, when the Venus research satellite is due to be launched. Moreover, some projects started with international funding can’t be fully developed, “because we have no budget for an entire program.”

Other problems, he said, include a decline in satellite production, due to a lack of orders from abroad, and an inadequate research and development budget. The result of all this is that “Israel’s civilian space activity is small. The space industry is limited in its competitive ability.”

Meir Chen, director of research and development at Israel Aerospace Industries, told the Knesset meeting that “the biggest slice of the space market is the market for communications satellites and communications services. A great many countries are investing substantial sums in this field. We, in contrast, are in a situation where this field – communications satellites at IAI – is due to close this [coming] summer.”

Chen also stressed that this field is of strategic importance for Israel, because “Israel is connected to the world by communications satellites and fiber optics. Without these satellites, we have no connection to the world.”

Other speakers listed various other problems. But none of them interested Akunis – until now.

After Sunday’s meeting, Akunis’ office issued a press statement saying the ministry had decided to “formulate a long-term national space program for Israel.” The plan will be drafted by a committee comprised of ministry director general Peretz Vazan, Israel Space Agency Chairman Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel and Blasberger. The panel will also “examine the possibility of helping to develop communications satellites.” It will submit its recommendations in 10 weeks.

Now, the industry just hopes these promises will be kept.