Israel is one of the tiniest countries on Earth, but go hundreds of miles up and things look a bit different. Thanks to its homegrown orbital rocket, it is now the smallest of 16 countries with its own launch capability; a technology that was put on full display with the Beresheet mission of 2019, which made Israel just the fourth country to attempt a moon landing. (The attempt, which was partly privately funded, ultimately crashed into the lunar surface, but a second mission is planned for 2024.) More recently, Israel welcomed back to Earth its second-ever astronaut, billionaire Eytan Stibbe, who was part of Axiom-1, the first ever, privately funded, all-civilian flight to the International Space Station.
For Uri Oron, the director of the Israel Space Agency, Stibbe’s trip offers only a glimpse of the promise of so-called new space, the global wave of private ventures that includes rockets, small satellites, and suborbital tourism, as well as systems to take humans back to the moon and on to Mars. In Israel, three defense giants tend to dominate the domestic space industry—ISI, Elbit, and Rafael—but Oron’s agency has recently sought to encourage more startups in an effort to compete in a fast-growing industry. Last month, for instance, the government and a consortium of investors announced the launch of a $125 million incubator for space-focused companies.
Oron likes to talk about the more intangible benefits of space investments, too, as a way to educate and inspire future explorers and entrepreneurs and to build partnerships that help reinforce bonds on Earth. Last year, Israel announced plans to join forces with the United Arab Emirates on Beresheet 2; and in January became the fifteenth nation to sign NASA’s Artemis Accords, which are meant to establish norms that will guide “cooperation in the civil exploration and peaceful use of the Moon, Mars, and other astronomical objects.” Keeping Israel cooperative but also competitive largely falls to Oron, who spent decades flying fighter jets, ran the Air Force’s intelligence directorate, and, after a stint working at SparkBeyond, an AI data analysis company, is now in the agency’s pilot’s seat. He first spoke to Fast Company during a visit he made to New York City in early April, and later followed up by email. The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Fast Company: I vividly remember Space Shuttle Columbia, which included Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon. My father was at Cape Canaveral for the landing, which tragically never happened. How did that event affect you, and how do you think it impacted Israel’s space program?
Uri Oron: Ilan actually was my commander when I was very young, so I knew him very well. To look at his legacy or his importance, his loss was devastating. But right now, we are at a point for space where a bunch of people have the will to do more. To use this experience and to move forward. That’s combined with what’s happening in space nowadays. Space today, it’s not the space it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. Space is going through a huge disruption. The fact that it’s open basically to everyone or very close to everyone, that space is open to business, that space is a domain that affects every part of our life—that changes the way we understand it. It’s not just the legacy of a specific mission. It’s the potential of the future that is more important to us. When you look at space, and you look at the huge changes and the disruption that the space sector is going through, I believe if we act right as a nation, we can build the Israeli space ecosystem to be a very, very relevant part of the new space ecosystem.
Given how space is changing, what opportunities do you see for Israel in particular?
I can see at least four different areas where I think space could be an engine for growth. The first one is its economic potential. Space could be a very relevant and big business sector in the world, and Israel should take part in it. The second is as a growth engine for science. We can talk about the James Webb telescope; we have the first Israeli space telescope, Ultrasat, that should be launched at the end of 2024; and we have some research efforts that Israel is part of. The third part is education. All of us know about the Apollo effect. We understand that space attracts young people to deal with technology, to deal with science. And that’s very fundamental for a country, such as Israel, that relies so heavily on human capital. So space is an engine for growth in the public as well.
And last but not least is international status. You can see that the space domain is a place where countries and organizations all compete and are connected to each other, are partnering with each other. So building international status, while elevating space exploration in the process, is an important feature as well. When you combine them, space can be an engine for growth for all four of these aspects. What you need to do is to be very focused, to realize where you are heading.
We are proud to announce that #Beresheet2 is going to head to the Moon in the first half of 2024! It will include two landers, each of which will carry out experiments on the surface of the Moon, and an orbiter that will stay for several years. #IsraelToTheMoon pic.twitter.com/fdenHdHmmV
— Israel To The Moon (@TeamSpaceIL) December 9, 2020
The nonprofit SpaceIL intends to reattempt a moon landing in 2024 with its $100 million Beresheet 2, and the following year, NASA is planning to head back to the moon as part of its Artemis mission. What role do you imagine Israel will play in those or other NASA missions?
I believe that Israel has a special and significant role to play in its work with NASA. One of the most intriguing of our joint projects is Ultrasat, the building and launch of a telescope in the ultraviolet field, to be used for basic physics research. This is an Israeli program funded by the Israel Space Agency and the Weizmann Institute, with the participation of NASA and DESY from Germany. The products of the telescope will be transferred to researchers who will study basic physics problems.
The Artemis mission also has an Israeli presence, with StemRad’s anti-radiation suit. I am convinced that with Israel’s joining Artemis’ activities, there will be additional activities in this area in which Israel will be able to contribute its scientific and technological capabilities. The collaboration with NASA is a key pillar in the space agency’s operations. As it was in the past, so it will be in the future.
There’s lots of high-flying talk about future space industries like small satellites, asteroid mining and manufacturing. When you think of specific opportunities, what excites you?
Israel does have a special legacy in space. But I think for a country like Israel, given its capabilities and limitations, our focus needs to be in two areas: small satellites are very relevant; and in all the areas of applications, what do you do with all the data that is coming from space on a very large scale? That’s what I think we as a nation can and will be focused on.
So, again, when you look back at the legacy of the space sector of Israel, it helps to remember that due to our populated geographic location and surrounding hostile countries, we must launch due west, over the Mediterranean Sea. [This “retrograde” launch approach imposes a penalty of roughly 30% on Israel’s lifting capabilities.] So, as we developed them, we needed to build satellites that would bring us high-end resolution with much-limited capacity and much-limited weight because we have this limitation. But we were able to do that. So we have the legacy of doing things small and very efficient. It was very relevant 30 years ago, but it’s become much more relevant when you look at new space, when you look at those large constellations of small satellites, and you realize that when you have the ability to build the same things small and efficiently, it gives you a competitive edge. So you do have this capability, for example.
And the small satellites that you just mentioned, recently eight different high schools in Israel built satellites and launched them. So they have a capability, and we understand that satellites can attract younger people to deal with space, to do the technology. So we do have the know-how to build those small satellites, how to launch them, how to operate them. And it’s becoming a huge market. In 2021, more than 1,700 small satellites were launched around the world. That’s huge. We could be part of it.
For companies and scientists thinking about working in space, what are the big challenges and where are the opportunities now?
Companies and entrepreneurs aspiring to practice in the field of space have a number of major challenges. The first of which is the adaptation of the product or service to the environmental conditions in space. It’s an unforgivable environment, with non-gravity, problematic radiation, and extreme temperature changes. Products and services must meet these conditions. Even the testing environment is not always available, and sometimes challenging. Access to space for the purpose of proving capability, and subsequently for the purpose of deploying the product or service, is not standard and still requires investment, although much less than in the past.
On the other hand, the space of opportunity is growing. As access to space becomes cheaper and simpler, that creates a new market in many areas. We are now at a time when the infrastructure is being deployed and becoming increasingly available.
What do you think we tend to misunderstand about the economics here? Is there anything that you were surprised by once you jumped into this role? Obviously you’ve been learning a lot over the past year.
I think what is still a question that we have to address, of course not in a phone call, but it should be addressed. Right now, we are building the infrastructure. But it’s still not obvious to all: How do you really make money in space? Especially if you’re not a very big company, such as SpaceX, or other huge entities. But I think we will get there.
It was about 20 years ago when we all started realizing the foundation and the infrastructure that enabled the internet. So right now, the way I understand it, we’re basically in the same spot. The foundations of the infrastructure are here right now. We don’t even think about or cannot even imagine the applications that will be in space 10 years from now. And that’s a potential that a lot of people don’t understand, because they are looking at right here and right now, and they are seeing billionaires who are flying to space or doing those space activities or doing this space tourism, which attracts a lot of media attention. But it’s only part of the story.
And look at what happened with Starlink in Ukraine. A private entity provides the communication infrastructure for a country under attack, for example. Or you can imagine a country has a disaster, but they don’t have sufficient infrastructure, and the one that provides that is a private entity, and this application comes from space. So we are on the move, and we’ll be in a different place 5, 10 years from now.
Given the war, what do you think are the implications for international relationships in space? Russia plays a huge role up on the space station.
I think we’re just in the middle of this crisis, and I don’t jump to any conclusion or understanding, but it’s changing by the hours and by the days. And space is part of it, but it’s only part of it. So I suggest to all of us, just look at the big picture, see where it goes. I will not eliminate any aspect of anything. We’re in the middle of this crisis, so I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.
But going back to Axiom-1, I think it’s a great opportunity to see another example of new space activities: private people connected to private organizations, going to a multinational space station to execute scientific experiments. That’s part of the new space, from private to public to government to research institutions. It’s not limited only to big countries, not limited only to governments, not limited to anything—it’s private people doing things in the new domain. That’s what drove humanity forward for decades, drove us to the future.
And when will you go up there?
I will quote Neil Armstrong: I’m not sure if they’ll call me, but I’m still available.