President Reuven Rivlin announced on Monday that 18 years after Israel's first astronaut Ilan Ramon was sent into space, his successor Eytan Stibbe is expected to depart to the International Space Station in one year's time.
However, a statement by the Israeli Space Agency released shortly after the president's announcement said the trip will be paid by Stibbe himself, and that the trip was initiated by the Axiom Space, a privately held company.
Stibbe, a retired combat pilot who formerly had the most kills of enemy aircraft in the Israeli armed forces, was a founder of the LR Group, which enjoyed close ties with Angolan authorities during and since the country’s civil war in the 90s. Stibbe has since left that company.
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"This is a day of national joy and immense pride," Rivlin said, addressing Stibbe. "You will be the messenger of those brilliant minds, present and future generations of the finest Israeli research, and help them understand how the world works."
"This journey into space in the name of science and research is being launched at a time when humanity is facing one of its greatest challenges in recent years. In the shadow of the virus, we have realized how great concepts like science, medicine and research can shake our lives from the ground up," Rivlin said.
Speaking after the president, Stibbe said that "the International Space Station is one of the largest centers of cooperation in the world. Astronauts from different countries live together, something our society really needs these days."
Axiom's website said that "flights to the ISS are set to begin in 2021. These missions will provide 10 days in microgravity at an altitude of 250 miles, allowing private astronauts to truly live the experience of life in space."
The ISA statement went on to say that pending NASA's approval, Stibbe's mission is set to be the first to be manned entirely by private astronauts.
Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was a crew member on the American Columbia space shuttle mission when the spacecraft blew up on February 1, 2003, killing him and his six fellow astronauts. The shuttle broke up upon re-entry to Earth and disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana, following a 16-day research mission.
Twenty-seven at the time, Ramon was the youngest combat pilot to take part in the June 17, 1981 Israeli air strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. He was chosen for the Iraqi mission despite the fact that he had no operational combat experience. Ramon had begun his military service in 1972, but was still in pilot training during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Stibbe is a member of the board of directors of the Ilan Ramon Foundation, according to its website. The two knew each other from the air force, where the Sibbe flew with Ramon and under his command.