The Israeli post office issued a stamp in December showcasing the country's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who is scheduled to fly on space shuttle Columbia this week.
"Every time you are the first, it's meaningful," said Ramon, a 48-year-old father of four who flew fighter jets with the Israeli air force.
Though Ramon will be the first Israeli in orbit, his country has operated a thriving, if low-key, space program since 1983. Israel concentrated its efforts on developing a small expendable launcher, which was based on its Jericho 2 medium-range ballistic missile; a series of small, but powerful remote sensing satellites; and a commercially successful communications satellite.
The Shavit, which means "comet" in Hebrew, is a 59-foot long, three-stage, solid-fuel rocket designed to carry payloads weighing up to 700 pounds into orbits roughly 300 miles above the planet. 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 orbits. 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 needing rides to orbit.
"Work is proceeding, but slowly," Rick Kelley, with Coleman Aerospace of Orlando, Fla., told United Press International. Kelley has worked with the Israelis to develop a Shavit-based launch system to fly in the United States.
Israel has had more success parlaying its small satellite programs into commercial venues. Israel Aircraft Industries' Ofeq ("horizon" in Hebrew) 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, or EROS. Images from EROS-A, which was launched in 2000, are marketed by ImageSat International -- a Cyprus-based company that is a subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries and Elbit Systems' Elop division.
A more-powerful follow-on spacecraft, EROS-B, is scheduled for launch in 2004. Israel plans to grow the constellation to eight spacecraft.
Israel also has developed a low-cost communications satellite, called the Afro-Mediterranean Orbital System, or 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, so far, is Israel's most successful commercial space product. 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. China 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," says 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 the aerosols affect global weather patterns and rainfall.
Ramon also will oversee several experiments designed by school children from Australian, China, Japan, Israel and the United States.
"Science is done for humankind wherever they are," says Ramon. "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."
With Ramon's mission, Israel will join an elite club of 30 nations that have sent at least one citizen into orbit aboard a U.S. shuttle or Russian Soyuz capsule. Space-faring 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," John Pike, with GlobalSecurity.org, a research group in Arlington, Va., told UPI. "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.
Six months after the Challenger accident, NASA banned non-astronauts -- and commercial satellites -- from the shuttles. Exceptions, however, were made to fly former Mercury astronaut and retired U.S. Sen. John Glenn and Valery Ryumin, a former cosmonaut and top Russian space program manager.