Q&A with Isaac Ben-Israel, Chairman of the Israel Space Agency


Profile | Isaac Ben-Israel
Chairman, Israel Space Agency

Going Global

On a per-capita basis, Israel may have the world’s most developed space program.

With a population no greater than New York City’s, Israel is home to at least two publicly traded pure-play space companies — telecommunications satellite fleet operator Spacecom and satellite broadband ground hardware provider Gilat Satellite Networks.

Israel’s domestic rocket, the Shavit, is good enough to launch Israeli military reconnaissance satellites­ — both radar and optical — developed by Israeli industry.

Israel also boasts a satellite prime contractor, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), that builds telecommunications and observation satellites and, through its subsidiary Imagesat, commercializes the home-grown Eros optical imaging satellites on the global market.

The growing popularity of national imaging satellites should play to Israel’s strength in low-weight, high-performance spacecraft. So where is the export success?

It’s on the way, says Israel Space Agency (ISA) Chairman Isaac Ben-Israel. With the government now accepting that space investment can be an engine for economic growth in addition to a guarantor of strategic autonomy, he says Israel is doing what’s necessary to better equip — and support — its industry on global markets.

This is one of the messages Ben-Israel intends to deliver to attendees of this year’s International Astronautical Congress, scheduled the week of Oct. 12 in Jerusalem.

Ben-Israel spoke with SpaceNews staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

ISA is part of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space. Does your budget come solely from that ministry?

ISA’s task is defined as commercial and civil space activities. Defense activities are under the Ministry of Defense, not under ISA. But because we are a small country, if you build a small-satellite production line, say at IAI, it will be used for military and for commercial. So ISA is only part of the picture. There is a defense budget spent on satellites and these two should be viewed together. We always have to coordinate our actions with the Ministry of Defense. The country is too small to do otherwise.

So unlike France, for example, the Israeli civil space agency does not have military work?

We are much smaller than France so where they coordinate dual-use activities only, we coordinate almost everything. Here’s an example: We have a special budget that invests in leveraging what has been invested by the Defense Ministry in the industry, to make us a player in the commercial world. ISA manages this budget.

It’s not that we have to build everything from scratch.

Is that funding from ISA?

Yes. Our budget has several components. One is the budget coming from the government, which three years ago was increased substantially. Another component is a joint budget with other nations’ agencies — for example, projects with CNES and others. We have a Venus project, where half comes from Israel and half from France.

A final component comes from commercial activity such as IAI, Gilat and El-Op; they all sell their products in the market. There are more than 60 satellites in the world where there is at least one Israeli subsystem.

When ISA signs a contract with IAI or Rafael, it is often with matching funds between the industry and the agency. Overall Israel space activity is around $1 billion from commercial and civil space activities.

What piece of that is the annual government budget for ISA? Three years ago you got a big increase, to 180 million Israeli new shekels ($47.3 million).

Yes, this was the first step in a five-year plan, which we are still implementing. We have elections coming up and we don’t have a government budget yet. It has not yet been approved, but we expect the parliament’s vote [in October] to give us a large increase.

We asked for 300 million shekels per year.

You have been asking for this level of funding for some time.

Yes, but we have been told we will get this. This year it was 180 million.

It’s a big increase.

Not in absolute terms, only in relative terms. The plan is to increase activities in space overall, to reach $3 billion per year. When we started this plan three years ago, it was maybe $300 million or $400 million. Today it is over $1 billion.

Once we get to the budget that we think we need we will reach the $3 billion within five years. It’s an impressive figure, but not so much when you take the overall economic market. It includes satellites and services from communications satellites, launches, observation satellites, ground hardware — everything.

Given the performance of some Israeli products — optical and radar Earth observation satellites, for example — is it fair to say the government has not backed export sales as much as it could?

Yes, and this was the whole idea behind the increase of a few years ago. We came to the government and said: We have some assets — technologies developed mainly by the Ministry of Defense — that we can use for the commercial market. But to do this we need not so much a budget increase as a slight modification of the product mix.

One example: Military customers like mainly black-and-white satellite imagery, with its higher resolution. For the commercial market, people want color imagery. But no one had invested in adding color to black-and-white images, to add more channels. Until a few years ago no one was really addressing the commercial space activity, only in the defense requirement.

This is a very simple example, but there are lots of others. Making the necessary adaptations to attract the commercial market does not require investing a lot of money. It was only two or three years ago that we began to use the technologies developed for defense requirements for the commercial market.

IAI bid in a recent competition to build a high-resolution satellite for the Peruvian government. It lost. Other competitions are ongoing. Is the Israeli government active in promoting its industry in these bids?

Up to a point. Until around three years ago the government was not involved in encouraging space activities. This has changed. But still, the market is divided into truly commercial business, especially the services around communications satellites, and a second, huge component still decided by governments, even if for civilian uses.

Governments have lots of criteria they use to evaluate bids. It’s not just price or performance; it can also be relations. So when the buyer is the government, you need help from your own government in bidding. This is done by everyone — France, the Americans, everyone. And because for us it is relatively new, perhaps we need to improve our effort here.

On the other hand, you need to remember there are fewer than 10 countries that supply this global demand and that can produce and launch satellites. There may be 100 countries that use satellites regularly and that number is growing every day. But the number of producers remains less than 10, and Israel is the smallest of the 10. We would like to be in a better place, but at least we are in a small group of countries.

Would you agree you are more competitive in Earth observation, radar and optical, with your products than you are on telecommunications satellites?

Yes. But we are working on the telecommunications end too. Because of the defense demand in the beginning, we put all our focus on a few niches. One of them was high-performance, low-cost observation spacecraft. In this we still have a relative advantage, and in the commercial market this is a strong weapon.

We are trying to develop something similar today in communications satellites. We have to do what we did in Earth observation satellites: We need a uniquely innovative solution in communications satellites.

We are now working on this and it is one of the main goals of ISA. We don’t yet have a product; it remains under development. But if we want to be a player in the communications market — and we do, since it’s 80 percent of the whole space market — then we need a capability you cannot find elsewhere. We cannot match the scale of the bigger competitors and we cannot compete with a company like Space Systems/Loral, for example. They do several satellites per year; we do one every three years.

This is one of the co-funded programs?

Yes, this is part of our matching funds program. We are working on capabilities that will be unique, something similar to what we have done on observation satellites.

When is the OptSat 3000 high-resolution optical observation satellite, built by IAI for the Italian government, to be launched?

The end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017 — a year’s time more or less.

Your Venus science satellite with CNES of France has been in development for a long time, with multiple delays. What is the current schedule?

First remember that the delays were mainly due to the launcher. Originally it was an Indian launcher, and then that schedule did not work. It is a story of launchers more than anything else. Now we have an agreement to launch on Vega at the end of 2016.

Technion University built three satellites, called Samson, to test formation flying. What is their status?

These are three small satellites that will act as an array in orbit. We think it is very interesting, a university-built project, with cooperation of industry.

You have signed cooperation agreements with multiple governments — France, the United States, Russia, Italy, the European Space Agency and others. Which one will lead to a concrete program in the near future?

In the past we have had projects with India, and we have Venus today. We are trying for NASA missions; no success yet, but we are still in the game. And we are going to launch something with Italy, a hyperspectral observation satellite called SHALOM, or Spaceborne Hyperspectral Applicative Land and Ocean Mission. We almost signed two years ago, and we want to conclude this this year. All the studies and work-share and budgetary work have been done. I see no reason it will not be signed.

Nothing with China yet?

There are many political constraints here. They wanted to do something, but technology transfer to China is a touchy subject.

Recently several nations, Britain and Luxembourg among them, have boosted their space budgets in the belief that space can drive economic growth. You share that view?

Yes, we do, and we always have. That is one reason why we have such a diverse satellite and launch capability given our small size.

Launchers and economic growth aren’t usually part of the same conversation.

No, launchers are perhaps not the best way of earning money. But you need them if you want to be independent.