One week behind schedule, the four participants in the first commercial flight to the International Space Station started their return to earth early Monday morning Israel time.
One of the four was Eytan Stibbe, the second Israeli in space, who hopes to be the first to return safely.
The return was repeatedly delayed by strong winds and high waves at all the possible landing sites along the Florida coast, both in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The trip back will take around 16 hours.
While in space, Stibbe conducted some 30 scientific experiments chosen by a scientific committee led by the Ramon Foundation. He also conducted educational and artistic activities, the latter in conjunction with various artists.
During the unexpected extra week, he conducted additional experiments in remote medicine and continued his educational activities, including filming videos to be shown to Israeli students.
Stibbe paid $55 million for his trip, a sum that sparked criticism. Far smaller donations to scientific and educational causes would likely have produced more scientific and educational benefits than his trip did. On top of the cost of the trip, large amounts were spent on public relations, including the tab (which Stibbe paid) for Israeli journalists to fly to America to cover the launch.
Moreover, the flight was often depicted as a national event, although Stibbe was never chosen to represent Israel.
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Stibbe, 64, a philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot, reached the international Space Station on April 8 as part of the first all-private astronaut team ever flown there.
The flight itself was an important event in the history of space tourism. The space station was built by governments (the U.S., Russia, the European Union, Japan and Canada) and has been staffed since it opened in 2000 by astronauts from governmental space agencies. This is the first time it has been used for commercial purposes.
Private companies have the power to advance space research thanks to their greater efficiency. Their involvement also makes it easier for small countries to send people to space. It could therefore both democratize space and expand human knowledge.
But it’s also worrying that a handful of tycoons – including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – increasingly control what happens in space, where there are no laws and regulations. Consequently, if they eventually own space stations or space colonies, “it will apparently be impossible to control what they do,” said Jordan Bimm, a historian of space exploration from the University of Chicago.
Space tourism also raises environmental concerns. In all of 2021, governments conducted fewer than 150 launches. But private companies plan daily launches – exclusively for the very rich, given their cost.
This could severely pollute the atmosphere and damage the ozone layer. Indeed, each passenger would generate more pollutants on an 11-minute private space flight than a billionaire on earth would generate in a lifetime.
Moreover, because these vehicles reach heights of 80 to 100 kilometers, the pollution could remain in the atmosphere for years, whereas pollutants emitted by ordinary planes, which fly much lower (12 kilometers maximum), dissipate in weeks, according to Dr. Eloise Marais of University College London, who studies the environmental impact of space launches.