In a five-day visit here with political, industry and academic leaders, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden pledged to boost Israeli participation in the U.S. space program, citing Earth science, robotics and instrumentation as potential areas for future cooperation.

As a gesture toward closer ties, Bolden signed an agreement recognizing the Israel Network for Lunar Science and Exploration as part of NASA’s Lunar Science Institute. Future areas of scientific and industrial cooperation will be identified in a bilateral framework agreement to be concluded later this year, Bolden said.

“We’ll exchange papers reflecting what we did and saw during the course of this visit … and the agreement to follow will provide a framework for moving forward,” said Bolden.

The NASA chief and U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, were visiting here as part of an annual space conference commemorating Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and fellow crew members who died in the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident. The Jan. 27-28 event in Herzliya, Israel, organized by the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, attracted some 1,200 people from nearly a dozen nations, and was co-sponsored by the Israel Space Agency, and Israeli and U.S. firms.

Speaking just days before the White House was set to unveil its new human spaceflight policy, Bolden said: “Unless we change our minds — and I don’t think that’s going to happen — we’re at the end of the space shuttle era. … We’re also approaching a time when we’ll have to answer, ‘Do we really need astronauts in space?’”

Bolden said U.S. President Barack Obama’s vision for NASA will elevate the importance of international cooperation. “Space exploration is an expensive, risky business that demands a tremendous diversity of skills and capabilities. The president wants me to work more with the partners we have and to bring in more nontraditional partners like Israel.”

Currently, about half of NASA’s 453 active international agreements are concentrated among 10 partner nations, half of which are in Europe. Israel, in contrast, has three ongoing agreements. “You’ll see us vigorously engaged with Israel and other nontraditional partners as we move forward with the new vision,” he said.

The Israel Space Agency has proposed miniaturized space radar, laser communications, robotics and advanced sensors as areas for cooperation, only one of which — robotics — was singled out by Bolden in his address. “Robots should be precursors. They should be deployed as scouts, before we put humans at risk. … There’s opportunity here for an Israeli contribution,” he said.

In the security sphere, Chilton urged Israeli involvement in U.S.-led efforts to map, monitor and ultimately prevent damage to orbiting assets caused by space debris. “The growing problem of space debris could make this essential domain untenable for man or machine,” Chilton said. “No one nation has the resources and the geography to do that today. U.S. telescopes, radars and sensors are not enough; we’ll need to improve situational understanding.”