Barring any unexpected setbacks, SpaceX expects to launch its Falcon 9 rocket this coming January from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The target: The International Space Station; hovering some 275 miles above our heads and traveling through space at approximately 17,000 mph. SpaceX’s own Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft will catch a ride aboard the rockets, carrying 4 extremely excited passengers, including among them, Israeli pilot and businessman Eytan Stibbe. He will be the second Israeli leaving the atmosphere, following the tragic loss of the Columbia space shuttle and its 7 astronauts, including pilot and national hero, the late Ilan Ramon.
The launch will mark the first ever private space mission to the International Space Station, leading many of the organizations involved to refrain from referring to Stibbe as an “astronaut”. Nevertheless, “space tourism” is not what you think, Stibbe’s role won't be limited to selfie stick duties; and even though he staked nearly $50 million, taking on most of the mission’s expenses on his own, Stibbe will use his 10 days in space to carry out over 40 different scientific experiments, which were determined by a scientific committee from the Ramon Foundation. Stibbe will also conduct experiments and research for Israeli startups, Israeli academic institutions, and other educational and research centers in the country.
From a Fluidic Telescope to growing chickpeas in micro-g environment
Among the planned experiments, we find one from the Electric Company and Israeli battery powerhouse Storedot, which will test innovative lithium-ion batteries in a micro-gravitational environment. Another experiment on Stibbe’s docket comes from the oncological center at Schneider Children's Medical Center, who are looking to characterize leukemia cells at low gravity, and without chemotherapy present. According to the scientific committee, Stibbe’s space findings will be crossed with a comparable controlled experiment done on earth; monitoring cancer cells and their genetic expression, which could lead to innovative new treatments with less painful side-effects.
Another interesting experiment comes from collaboration between NASA and the Technion University, where Stibbe will investigate leveraging the micro-g environment to solidify a liquid polymer, creating a lens, 10X bigger than existing ones, for telescopes used in space exploration. Winning the award for the “most Israeli” experiment, Stibbe will attempt to sprout chickpeas at low gravity. Obviously, as preparation for the first wave of hungry Israeli tourists touching down on Mars after a long flight.
The moon landing ignited his imagination
In an interview with Geektime, Stibbe shares the origin story behind his space trip, schedule, his vision for the future of space tourism, as well as the fears that accompany his journey to the great beyond.
Where did the idea come from? Has it always been a dream to be an astronaut?
“When I was a kid, NASA landed on the moon, and it ignited my imagination to think of humans in other places in the galaxy. But then for years it was hidden, and for me only became a reality again when I met Ilan (Ramon, who was Stibbe’s former commander in the Air Force) at the space center during his preparation for the mission; when I saw people running back and forth, shuttles taking off and landing, and astronauts training, it was real. Not just on TV. That’s when I saw it was possible.”
Tell us about the moment when you got the OK for the mission…
“Just recently, after Elon Musk privatized the industry, and opened up the race to space beyond governments and administrations; private companies are innovating in space travel, new space infrastructure, and they're even planning on returning to the moon… Once he made it possible, then it became a reality. I was on standby, and once they gave me the green light, I immediately said yes.”
Describe your day-to-day up in space...
“The space station goes by London time. Everyone goes to sleep at the same time, wakes up at the same time, and we eat all our meals together. There are specialists and experts who plan our day, they know where everyone is located at all times. Who’s going to the gym, who’s in the lab, who’s taking pictures with Earth, and all these different variables need to be coordinated… There are passengers from Japan, Europe, and Russia. They can’t all determine their own schedule. That task is up to the International Space Stations team, ensuring ten people are occupied and accommodated at all times.” Of course there are experiments that need to be done live with the team on the ground. I expect surprises.”
You’re going to conduct dozens of experiments… from cosmic radiation’s impact on electronics to growing chickpeas. Which experiment do you find most fascinating?
“I’m more fascinated by the variety of research. I’ll be conducting medical device experiments, as well as experiments in materials, communications, cosmic radiation measurements, and more. I can’t tell you I have a preferred one. Anything that will hurt though, is definitely going to the bottom of the list… The coolest ones are the experiments that kids sent. Experimenting through their rich imagination is going to be super interesting for me. Anyways, most of my time will be dedicated to educational aspects, including live broadcasts, recordings, and a rich curriculum full of lessons. We are trying to get as much live feed as possible.”
Bonding in the Alaskan mountain range
Tell us a bit about the training and preparation for a mission like this one. Have you met your shuttle mates yet?
“I’ve met the other people on my mission, with one of them being Michael López-Alegría (a veteran NASA astronaut, the current mission commander and VP at Axiom, the company responsible for the mission) who already has 4 trips to space under his belt, including a 7-month stay at the International Space Station. We met at the SpaceX headquarters during pressure-suite measurements and custom seat adjustments. We’ll meet again at the next phase, 10 months from now at the G simulator, and in a month the whole team is going bonding in Alaska… Trekking through the Alaskan mountains with packs on our backs, and then 4 months of training in Houston, then SpaceX headquarters and the Dragon models… But flying is a small part, the big thing is living at the space station; An amazing center of sustainability, a body living in extreme conditions, feeding off solar energy, and recycling anything it can - including over 90% of liquids. Everyone there is energetic and efficient, and it’s going to be quite interesting to live in a bubble of sustainability.”
“I believe we can find life forms other than the ones on our planet”
Where do you see space tourism in the future? The space station orbits nearly 250 miles above us. Can we go any further?
“In space, there’s no real difference between cruising 250 miles from the Earth or at 25,000 miles, where the satellites roam. The most interesting thing is the possibility of life on other planets. If we can establish a settlement on the moon, if we can grow food there, extract water somehow, and energy is abundant with advanced technology, everything is possible, then Mars… you can’t take 3 years worth of food with you. Just think of the concept of cultivating meat - just one of many potential ways of producing food on another planet, all incredibly fascinating. Even in extreme conditions - with sun or without, with water or no water - I truly believe we will find life outside of our planet.”
Following the announcement of the mission, an argument erupted over you being a space tourist and private individual, and still receiving the “Israeli hug” as your mission to space has been nationalized. What are your thoughts on this? How do you define your mission?
“I’m Israeli. And I intend to go to space. These are the facts. However, since the announcement, everybody wants to jump on board: Universities, hospitals, the scientific community, the Ministry of Technology & Science, the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health. All of them sit on different committees… For example, sitting on the scientific committee we have the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science, the Israel Space Agency, and they all want something. Different institutions like schools, youth groups, municipalities, startups, and others, all want to try and get a chance to send their experiments up to space. So, I see in all of this as a small example of where Elon Musk is leading us; the global inclusion of the private space sector, where everyone can jump on.”
“I have the resources and the dream, and mostly, for me, it’s about the mission and its contribution to science, education, and whoever I can help.”
And you have no issues becoming a nationally recognized figure, like some kind of Olympic athlete?
“I have no problems with that. It’s not my goal. I didn’t do this to become famous. I do it for the rush, the experience, to fulfill my dreams, and because of the mission's importance… Something I learned in the last 6 months is that space drives people crazy. It ignites their imagination, creativity, I meet kids who go "crazy" talking about space. We have some familiarity with the oceans on Earth, but up in space it's really like leaving our comfort zone, leaving what protects us; from the home of humanity to an unknown and scary place. It’s inspiring, and not just for scientists, but also for artists, philosophers, and for the spiritual… I didn’t expect so many to get behind this mission - everyone wants to contribute someway, somehow, and it’s really fun to see.”
Flying fighter jets are way more dangerous
Earlier you mentioned the late Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Aren’t you afraid of malfunctions?... As a veteran Air Force pilot and technical individual, you must be quite aware that technology sometimes fails?
“Of course, even with my knowledge, there’s still fear. But visiting the space center, and meeting the people behind the technology really helped. When you’re flying on a 747 or 787, you’re trusting Boeing. It’s not like you’re sitting eating breakfast wondering if the ‘Boeing engineer attached the wing on right’. SpaceX has had dozens of successful launches, and even after a few experiments and failures - now everything is working fine. I visited the Crew-2 launching site 2 weeks ago, and it really got the adrenaline rushing, and I was thinking to myself ‘how am I gonna wait 10 months now?’... I’m definitely aware of the risks, but I’m not afraid of the dangers.”
No scenarios running through your head?
So for you it’s just like another combat mission?
“I think the Air Force is more dangerous… They’re trying to shoot you down… but here, everyone wants to help you succeed. In the F16 it’s on you… but here everything is autonomous.”