NASA Chief in First Israel Visit to Expand Cooperation on Joint Space Projects

Israel Space Agency hopes for appointment of new Israeli astronaut

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifying before Congress in June.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The new head of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jim Bridenstine, arrived in Israel on Thursday for his first visit to the country in his new position.

Bridenstine, who began his job as NASA Administrator in late April, will meet with Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, and discussed future joint space plans with officials from the Israel Space Agency. On Friday, he will speak to students in Jerusalem.

A joint statement issued by Akunis and Bridenstine said that Israel and NASA had agreed to expand cooperation on various issues, including the International Space Station, space exploration and science, and science education.

>> First Israeli spacecraft to head to moon

Bridenstine said that Israel had a lot to offer the United States, adding that Israel would be part of America’s first mission to deep space since the Apollo program. Akunis said Israel has expressed interest in sending another Israeli astronaut into space and that NASA has promised to consider this request.

Bridenstine has said in the past that he plans to turn the International Space Station over to commercial management in 2025, when American financing ends. At Thursday’s press conference, he said NASA would then use this money to go deeper into space, where commercial companies can’t yet go.

Akunis said Israel plans to participate in this effort.

The Israel Space Agency has signed a number of cooperative agreements with NASA in recent years, including one on the use of protective space suits developed by an Israeli company for an experimental flight to Mars, as well as a program to send Israelis to train at NASA’s research center.

Akunis said that Bridenstine’s visit is further evidence of Israel’s international standing in science, technology and innovation and the great respect the world has for Israel’s capabilities. The visit is further proof of the excellent ties between the U.S. government and Israel, added Akunis.

The nomination of Bridenstine, 42, by U.S President Donald Trump in September 2017 was controversial and the battle in the Senate against his appointment was unprecedented. Bridenstine had been a congressman from Oklahoma for five years before the appointment but it took seven months for him to gather enough support in the Senate to be approved.

His opponents pointed out that he has no scientific, engineering or space background or training, although he was a pilot in the Navy and later in the Air National Guard. He was accused of denying the existence of global climate change and was criticized for comments he has made against LGBT rights, but seems to have changed his tune on this since assuming his NASA post. Others objected to the appointment of a professional politician to what had always been a scientific post.

At his Senate hearings, Bridenstine retracted his statements calling into doubt that humans bore responsibility for global warming – but refused to say that humans were the main cause of climate change.

 As a congressman, he was opposed to gay marriage, allowing openly gay boys into the Boy Scouts and the Obama Administration’s rules to prevent discrimination against transgender students. But since taking over at NASA, he has tried to turn over a new leaf, and he was the first Trump Administration official to issue a statement to his agency’s employees in honor of LGBT Pride Month in June.