Space Programs Thriving in Israel

The Israeli Post Office issued a stamp in December featuring the country’s first astronaut, who is scheduled to fly on NASA’s space shuttle in mid-January.

"Every time you are the first, it’s meaningful," said Col. Ilan Ramon. Israel will join an elite club of 30 nations that have sent at least one citizen into orbit aboard a U.S. shuttle or a Russian Soyuz capsule. The countries include Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Syria, Costa Rica, South Africa, Poland, Afghanistan and Cuba.

"It’s peculiar that it would have taken this long to fly an Israeli, given our strategic alliance with Israel," said John Pike of the Arlington, Va.-based research group, "I mean, we flew a Saudi almost 20 years ago."

Prince Sultan Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, flew as a guest on the space shuttle in June 1985, ostensibly to oversee the release of a Saudi-owned communications satellite. After the Challenger accident six months later, NASA banned nonastronauts — and commercial satellites — from the shuttles.

Israel has had a thriving, if low-key, space program for two decades. The Israel Space Agency was established in 1983 to nurture and oversee industrial and scientific programs that would pave the way for an indigenous space program.

Israel concentrated its efforts on developing a small, expendable launcher, which was based on its Jericho 2 medium-range ballistic missile, and pioneering a series of small but powerful remote sensing satellites.

The Shavit, which means "comet" in Hebrew, is a 59-foot-long, three-stage, solid-fuel rocket designed to carry payloads weighing about 700 pounds into orbits roughly 300 miles above Earth. To avoid dropping spent rocket segments on neighboring countries, Israel launches its spacecraft against the planet’s easterly rotational spin from a coastal launch site south of Tel Aviv.

The Shavit has a mixed track record, with two of six flights failing to deliver their payloads into the proper orbit.

Israel Aircraft Industries, which manufactures and operates the Shavit program for the Israel Space Agency, has formed partnerships to market commercial versions of the Shavit booster. Efforts have been hampered, however, by a worldwide glut of launch vehicles and a shortage of satellites to orbit.

"Work is proceeding, but slowly," said Rick Kelley of Orlando-based Coleman Aerospace.

Israel has had more success parlaying its small satellite programs into commercial venues. Israel Aircraft Industries’ Ofeq spacecraft, a remote sensing eye-in-the-sky used by the country’s military agencies, has a civilian cousin called the Earth Resources Observation Satellite (EROS).

Images from EROS-A, which was launched in 2000, are marketed by Cyprus-based ImageSat International, a subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries and Elbit Systems’ Elop division.

A more powerful spacecraft, EROS-B, is scheduled for launch in 2004. Israel plans to increase the constellation to eight spacecraft.

Israel also has developed a low-cost communications satellite called the Afro-Mediterranean Orbital System (AMOS). Built by Israel Aircraft Industries in partnership with Alcatel Espace of France and Daimler-Benz Aerospace of Germany, the first AMOS spacecraft was carried into orbit by a European Ariane 4 rocket in 1996. AMOS 2 is scheduled for launch in 2003.

The 2,000-pound AMOS spacecraft is Israel’s most successful commercial space product so far. China selected the Israeli satellite over European designs for up to 10 spacecraft purchased by Hong Kong Satellite Technology Group, which is owned by the Chinese government.

China wants the satellites, in part, to support television broadcasts of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and plans to launch the satellites on its Long March expendable boosters.

Ramon’s presence in space, however, is intended to highlight Israel’s well-established science and environmental research programs, not its commercial and military uses of space.

"Israel has a lot to offer," said Ramon, who will spend much of his 16 days in orbit operating an experiment that tracks dust particles in the atmosphere, in an attempt to learn how aerosols affect global weather patterns and rainfall.

Ramon also will oversee several experiments designed by schoolchildren from Australia, China, Japan, Israel and the United States.

"Science is done for humankind, wherever they are," Ramon said. "It’s every scientist’s obligation to share his findings, and this goes for every experiment that we are going to do during this mission."

New Jewish Music

During Orange County’s annual “Chanukah Concert”, a corner
of Costa Mesa’s Performing Arts Center is transformed into an all-Jewish music
store featuring CDs recorded by some Reform cantors who participate in the

“They don’t have much opportunity to put their CDs up for
sale,” said Dr. Gordon Fishman of Newport Beach, who co-produces the concert
with his wife, Hannareta. She and some friends supervise sales, which this year
include works by Ruti Brier, Nancy Linder, Shula Kalir-Merton and Arie Shikler.
Also available are CDs by the Orange County Klezmers, who play at the concert

Unlike mainstream recording artists, who count on frequent
gigs and building street credibility to win a recording and distribution
contract, the aim of these gifted artists is not about achieving commercial
success, but liturgical renewal. “The Reform litmus test is, ‘Can you sing it
in a synagogue?'” said Mark Kligman, an associate professor of Jewish
musicology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

“Very few are able to make money from recording,” he said,
noting that a folk artist is considered noteworthy with sales of 5,000 copies.
A rare exception is Andy Statman, who is credited with reinvigorating klezmer
music, under contract to mainstream label Sony Classical.

The cantors, like many performers still holding day jobs,
each self-produced their own recordings, though some received more help than
others. Most attempt to achieve national distribution by submitting their work
for consideration to the handful of Jewish music distributors. Distributors
receive about 300 unsolicited submissions annually, half of which are aimed at
Orthodox consumers, who by far eclipse non-Orthodox Jews in music buying,
Kligman said.

The concert audience will get a sample of the most recent
recording by Shikler, cantor of Irvine’s Congregation Shir Ha Ma’a lot. From
“Libi Ba Mizrach,” Hebrew for “My heart is in the east,” he will perform to a
reggae beat “Every Young Lion.” Onstage, as on the CD, he will be backed by the
Flying Falafel Bros., a four-man band that accompanies him for musical Shabbat

The CD spans several musical styles and includes 12 numbers
from an archive of original compositions that Shikler estimates number in the
thousands. It was recorded by Irvine’s Woodland Music Productions. “It’s like a
pipe that’s open,” he explained of his music-producing flair. “Two nights ago,
I wrote four songs,” he said.

His earlier CDs, “The Torah in Song” and “Hebrew Reggae,”
are live recordings from services where the liturgy is sung to Shikler’s

“Most people in the Jewish world aren’t doing original
music,” said Randee Friedman, president and founder of Sounds Write Productions
Inc. of San Diego, which distributes works by 200 contemporary artists,
including New York’s Debbie Friedman and Albuquerque’s Rabbi Joe Black.

Ruti Brier, cantorial soloist with Irvine’s University
Synagogue, in May released her first CD, “Shabbat Alive,” which she co-produced
with Sam Glazer, a well-known Jewish music producer in Los Angeles. She sings
the Friday night prayers to a blend of jazz, pop-klezmer and Mideastern
melodies. Even without a distributor, 800 copies of “Shabbat Alive” have sold,
Brier said. She is considering an English-language CD next.

Nancy Linder, of Westminster’s Temple Beth Emet, recorded
“My Favorite Hebrew Songs,” and “Songs of the Jewish Spirit.” She is finishing
work in a Fountain Valley studio on a third CD, tentatively titled “Simchat

Among the lot, the most ambitious CD was made by Shula
Kalir-Merton, cantor for Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. She commissioned new
compositions from Cantor Meir Finkelstein, Craig Taubman and Cantor Alan
Weiner. Its title song, “Don’t Ask Me to Leave You,” was written by the late Ami
Aloni, who was to produce the recording. The rest are well-known Israeli songs
with unusual arrangements. She recorded at a Los Angeles studio with full
orchestral arrangements.

“It was a labor of love all the way,” said Kalir-Merton, who
received financial help from an anonymous donor. “I didn’t want it to be
half-baked. I love music. It’s poetry. I wanted the magnitude of the passion to
come out.”

In two years, she has sold 500 CDs. All proceeds go to the

“That was my commitment to the donor. I have stuck to it
religiously,” she said.