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Zvi Kaplan, Director, Israel Space Agency

Zvi Kaplan. Credit: Israel Space Agency photo

At the end of September, Zvi Kaplan concludes a seven-year stint as head of the Israel Space Agency (ISA), with an Israeli-French satellite in final development; a new hyperspectral project with Italy about to get under way; and freshly inked framework agreements with the European, U.S. and Russian space agencies. Not bad for a five-person agency budgeted at less than $1 million per year.

In Israel, support for non-defense space activities must be painstakingly gleaned from multiple funding sources; Kaplan is first to admit that the role of ISA chief is a combination of lobbyist, marketeer, soothsayer and arbiter among Israel’s often rivalrous government, industry and academic sectors.

In parallel, Kaplan, a veteran physicist and former director of Israel’s Sorek Nuclear Research Center, had to convince prospective international partners of the value to be gained through collaboration with Israel.

“I went with no ego to cultivate cooperation wherever and whenever I could … with counterparts from other space agencies and their management teams or here in Israel with the chief scientist, academia, industry and even in my own ministry,” he said. Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry supervises ISA’s activities.

In an interview with Space News correspondent Barbara Opall-Rome, the 67-year-old Kaplan reflected on the bittersweet achievements borne from the 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, whose crew included Israel’s first astronaut, and ISA objectives he hopes will be achieved by his as-yet-unnamed successor.

 

You’ve made international cooperation the centerpiece of your strategy for ISA. But how is this done with such a negligible budget?

We operate as a headquarters, so it’s not the basic budget or lack thereof that should be considered, but what we are able to leverage. On average, we have access to upwards of $5 million per year to foster international cooperative projects, and additional funding is invested each year in the European Commission’s Framework Program for space activities. Last year, for example, marked the first time that Israeli firms and institutions won proposals through the Seventh Framework Plan that far exceeded the modest amounts invested by the government. In terms of domestic projects, we usually can put our hand on a few millions of dollars each year to support basic research and academic infrastructure.

But numbers aside, I believe Israel can contribute way beyond its size in providing added-value technologies and concepts befitting of world-class collaboration.

 

Such as?

Israel got into the space business a bit later than others, but in 1988, we became the eighth nation to indigenously launch its own satellite into space. Since then, Israel claims a valuable niche with small, long-endurance satellites, very robust and varied payloads and an advanced information communications sector.

 

Nevertheless, it’s axiomatic that international cooperation comes with a price tag. How much is ISA budgeting for ongoing projects?

The first cooperative program under my watch was with the French space agency, CNES, with the multispectral Project Venus for vegetation and environmental monitoring. The government of Israel and our leading space industries invested close to $50 million, and when it is launched in 2014, it will be state of the art, with 12 colors and electric propulsion. It’s important to note here that we created a situation where the two space agencies — ISA and CNES — learned to manage a program in a cooperative and very positive way, which is not trivial. Each partner has his own constituencies and we’re managing it nicely.

 

And the Spaceborne Hyperspectral Applicative Land and Ocean Mission (SHALOM) satellite with Italy’s space agency? Can Israel come up with the 80 million euros ($116 million) needed for the bilateral program?

Yes we can. The agreement signed in 2010 calls for a study costing a few million euros, with the 80 million euros you mentioned to follow. We have the money for the yearlong study, which should begin by the end of this year. We agreed basically that Israel would provide the bus; Italy will take the lead in payload development. … Propulsion is still an open issue.

 

So is it correct to say that ISA’s role is to lay the foundation for collaboration through framework agreements and only afterward work to secure specific funding on a per-project basis?

That’s exactly what we’re doing now with the European Space Agency, with NASA and with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Since we signed with ESA in January of this year, we’ve identified several subjects for prospective cooperation. We’re scheduled for a second workshop in late September to look deeper into areas we’ve identified, such as electric propulsion, the ability to detect land mines from space, and several basic science studies for peaceful exploration of space. Remember, these framework accords do not include funding, but once the partners determine specific projects to pursue, they then work out cost- and work-share details for codification in separate follow-on agreements.

 

What’s happening with the framework agreement signed with Russia in March?

We’re now working on a draft implementation agreement with two parts: one to be signed between the two governments and the other between the Technion (Israel’s technical university based in Haifa) and the research institute in St. Petersburg. The idea is for Israel — with its relatively cloudless environment and desirable geographic location — to host a ground station to improve the accuracy of Russia’s Glonass satellite navigation system. The two countries view this as a springboard for other collaborative projects, and Israel wants to implement this, but we will proceed cautiously.

 

Out of deference to American concerns?

We cannot lose sight of the bowl we eat from, and because of the special relationship between Israel and America, we need to consult and coordinate such things with Washington.

 

Does this also limit ISA’s maneuvering room to cultivate future space cooperation with China?

Absolutely. We won’t fool around. As much as we would like to develop closer cooperative ties with this important space power, we’ll have to be hyper-careful about what we do. Just recently, we had an internal discussion about using a Chinese launcher for Venus, but we’ll need to consult with our friends if we want to proceed.

 

Which brings us to NASA and the agreement signed earlier this year. What specific projects are under consideration?

With NASA, we joined the Lunar Science Institute, which provides a professional outlet for our academic and industrial base. Israeli companies are also participating in preparing proposals for the Discovery program. Our proposal to extrapolate from our very successful, operational TecSAR synthetic aperture radar satellite was not selected this time around, but we’re exploring other avenues to leverage our ability to provide low-cost, very robust payloads for deep-space exploration. We have working groups evaluating several promising potential collaborations, and I’m optimistic about the future of bilateral cooperation.

Beyond the special relationship between Israel and the United States, we share the indelible experience suffered from the Challenger accident. Our shared tragedy gives us a shared purpose to press ahead, and NASA’s full commitment to the annual conference held here in the name of our astronaut Ilan Ramon and in honor of all the members of the STS-107 crew provides a valuable venue to deepen our connections and showcase to NASA and the rest of the world Israel’s unique capabilities in space.

 

Your chairman, retired Maj. Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel, has been relentless in pressing his vision for a national, collaborative Israeli space program funded to the tune of 500 million Israeli shekels ($139 million) annually, with matching funds expected from industry, academia and private-sector investors. When, if at all, do you expect this to materialize?

I believe it will happen, although not as quickly as we would have hoped. Israel this summer has been experiencing waves of social protests aimed at extracting more funding for social services, and then there are the ever-present budgetary demands for security. So funding approval has been delayed. That said, we have the support of the president and the prime minister and a very compelling business plan to preserve Israel’s space niche through reinvigorated infrastructure, new commercial opportunities and — most importantly — cultivation of new generations of scientists to support national objectives.

 

How will military space — particularly those activities funded by the defense budget — fit in with this envisioned national space program?

We told our government and the industries that the role of civil space is growing and we can no longer depend on the spinoffs and residual benefits of military space. The days are long gone when our Ministry of Defense can support large space projects. Now they, too, are pursuing cooperation. So under the envisioned national space program — which I believe will become a reality — the security sector will be just one of many sectors to benefit from the multidisciplinary effort in terms of the increasingly dual-use applications for space.

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