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Israeli Space Program Sets Lofty Goals : Security, Industrial Development Are Prime Concerns

Times Staff Writer

Ask Dror Sadeh why a small, deeply indebted country like Israel started a space program and he’ll tell you about tomatoes.

Tomatoes were a burning issue when his parents first came to what was then Palestine in 1921 as part of an early wave of Jewish immigration, recalled Sadeh, director of the fledgling Israel Space Agency, in an interview.

“Jewish tomatoes cost 10 times more” than the ones the resident Arabs were already growing, he said. But those early Jewish pioneers insisted on raising their own nonetheless.

Economic Brights Spots

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And today, with tomatoes and other agricultural exports one of the few economic bright spots in Israel, the question of why the early immigrants were so stubborn is long forgotten.

“There are three reasons Israel should go into space"--national security, high-technology industrial development and pure scientific advancement, said Sadeh.

“Anyone who doesn’t go into space today is missing the boat,” contended the 50-year-old astronomer, who also heads Tel Aviv University’s Department of Astrophysics and Astronomy.

Israel launched its space agency in July, 1983, under the guidance of then-Minister of Science and Development Yuval Neeman, a nuclear physicist who is still a right-wing member of Parliament. Its job is to coordinate all space-related work done in the country. The agency has only four full-time employees and operates out of rented office space near the university on a $500,000 annual budget.

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While it may not rival the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States, the Israel Space Agency nevertheless has ambitious plans, including its own communications satellite and maybe an Israeli astronaut.

Most of those plans hinge on continuing close cooperation with NASA. For example, American technicians are installing a laser tracking station in the hills near Jerusalem under a contract between Israel and NASA. The station will be one of 19 around the world whose main purpose is measuring the movement of the continents.

The Israel Space Agency is overseeing three experiments being designed to fly on future missions of the American space shuttle. The experiment closest to readiness will involve sending hornets into space. By studying the comb that the insects are expected to build in the microgravity of space, scientists hope to learn more about how the hornets keep their bearings--knowledge that may provide clues to the mysteries of space sickness among astronauts.

Israeli in Space

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There have reportedly been feelers from here on the possibility of putting an Israeli astronaut aboard a future space shuttle flight as well.

Israel is also weighing an American invitation to participate in research and development on the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as the “Star Wars” program.

The effort, which would be the largest single U.S. scientific undertaking since an American walked on the moon in 1969, envisions a defense system capable of shooting down enemy nuclear missiles while they are still in space.

Israel was one of 17 countries invited to join the $26-billion research effort in a March 26 letter from Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

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Sadeh met in Washington recently with Gen. James Abramson, head of the “Star Wars” project. The Israel Space Agency director said he favors forming a high-level group of Israeli scientists, industrialists and defense experts to develop detailed proposals for Abramson on “Star Wars” research projects that might be carried out here.

Israel hasn’t formally accepted Weinberger’s invitation yet, but government officials are clearly leaning in favor. Lucrative contracts are expected to spin off from the funding that would be funneled into “Star Wars” research in the next few years.

U.S. Our Only Friend

Moreover, said Sadeh, “if the United States can succeed (in developing “Star Wars” technology) and prevent 99.99% of Russian missiles from entering the United States, then they can also prevent 99.99% of Russian missiles from entering Israel. . . . The only friend we have in the world is the United States.”

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A few Israelis are skeptical. Some fear that by participating in the project, Israel will only further alienate the Soviets and thus jeopardize even more the chances of Soviet Jews who want to emigrate to Israel.

Also, some here argue that the only reason the Reagan Administration invited Israeli participation was to soften up some liberal U.S. critics of the scheme.

“The invitation to Israel to take part in the development of instruments for the ‘Star Wars’ project is more of a political gimmick than a scientific project with content,” argued Giora Shaviv, a space scientist setting up a Space Research Institute in Haifa. “Israel has very little to contribute in this sphere, which is highly advanced and requires vast investments.”

While Israel doesn’t have the budget to develop and launch one yet, Sadeh said, Israel Space Agency has started a communications satellite project headed by a former director of the Mossad intelligence agency. He said it will take an investment of between $150 million and $200 million for such a satellite.

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Sadeh noted that a satellite funded by the Arab countries--"Arabsat"--was launched earlier this year.

“There are two things that unite Arabs,” the Israel Space Agency director said, “the war against Israel and their signature on Arabsat.”

The astronomer said that Israel has no intention of sending spy satellites into orbit but that its participation in space nonetheless has broad national security implications.

“Everyone who sees an American on the moon knows that the U.S. has better technology than the Russians,” he said. “We are doing the same thing with the Arabs. We want to make sure we are stronger in technology.”

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