— In the winter of 1998, after another Shavit launch failure and loss of an Ofeq spy satellite,
‘s space program was on the verge of bankruptcy. With only one payload-carrying satellite in low Earth orbit and no available funding for new builds, Israel’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) was forced into selling off real estate to hang on to its military space ambitions.

“The decision was made to close the program. But we found a way to sell 1,000 apartments to keep the program running,” IlanBiran, MoD director-general at the time, told participants here at the Fourth Annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference, named after Israel’s first astronaut killed along with six other members of the STS-107 Space Shuttle Columbia mission on Feb. 1, 2003.

And while Biran’s account omitted the nearly $100 million in commercial investment solicited to sustain Israel’s remote-sensing program – a controversial matter now pending in U.S. courts – it aptly illustrates the shoestring funding and ad hoc nature in which Israel plans and executes national space plans.

“There’s lots of high talk, but the priority doesn’t match,” said Biran, now chairman of state-owned Rafael Ltd. In his address, Biran cited three critical elements now lacking in
‘s space program: a clear statement of work outlining operational requirements and deployment schedules; an appropriate budget for funding national requirements; and a government-endorsed ten-year plan.

Until all three elements are firmly in place, Biran warned that the stark gap between potential and implementation will continue to grow.

Untapped Potential

Untapped potential was the dominant theme of the formal two-day conference by NASA, Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies and the Israeli Science Ministry, as well as a half-day, business-oriented preconference hosted by the U.S. Embassy and Futron Corp., a U.S.-based industry consultancy.

About 500 government, industry and academic participants, including dozens from the United States, Italy, France and several other countries, received overviews of current Israeli programs and were encouraged to cooperate in future initiatives. But with few exceptions, enthusiasm here was limited to academic and scientific endeavors in the civilian sphere rather than near-term prospects for profitable ventures with Israeli industry.

“Can we be among the leaders in the global space sector?” ChaimEshed, Israeli MoD director for space programs, asked rhetorically. “No doubt we’re leading in the niche of minisatellites. Up until now, MoD has been the biggest locomotive driving this success. But I’m concerned that we’re at the peak now, and from such a
high point
, the direction is usually down.”

space roadmap calls for a 3-D constellation of minisatellites – weighing up to
400 kilograms
– with increasingly sophisticated electro-optical and radar payloads. MoD’s second priority aims to increase revisit time and fill critical gaps through very inexpensive microsatellites in the 100-kilogram to 120-kilogram class capable of being launched on-demand by fighter or transport aircraft. He admits, however, that MoD plans are highly dependent on external funding generated from the commercial market.

In an admittedly provocative Jan. 29 presentation, Jay Gullish, Futron’s senior program manager for space and telecommunications, noted that
ranked ninth in a worldwide survey of global space capabilities. According to his research,
accounted for two of the 68 satellites launched in 2007 and is building two of the 102 satellites under contract for 2008. Both are key benchmarks for assessing worldwide competitiveness.

According to Futron’s research for 2008, Gilat retained its number 43 ranking among the world’s largest revenue-generating space companies while Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) dropped from 47 to
49 in
its global listing.

“You all have a lot to be proud of, but I’d not be complacent,” Gullish told government and industry executives here. “There’s great work going on here in the schools and I’ve seen tremendous enthusiasm generated by the new INSA [Israel Nano-Satellite Association]… But what has significantly changed over 2008? Are you selling more satellites? Have you concluded any new partnerships or cooperative ventures? Do you have a space policy?” he asked.

chided what he viewed as the limited transparency of the Israeli space program. “In a global environment where transparency is so important, Israeli policy is still a mystery to me. I don’t understand your budget, your capabilities or what you aim to achieve.” He noted that even in communist
, the government publishes an annual white paper on space, and data regarding strategy, objectives and timelines can be accessed online.

In a speech, Maj. Gen. IdoNehushtan, Israel Air Force (IAF) commander, dashed hopes here that the so-called “owner” of the military space mission aimed to revitalize moribund space plans. Not only was Nehushtan’s annual address void of any vision for space, it failed to even hint of future operational requirements or modernization plans.

In fact, his address – which former IAF chiefs have used to accentuate priorities and lobby for added funding – barely mentioned space, beyond commenting about its “special place” and its “contribution to dealing with today’s threats.”

When asked if he was disappointed by the address, TalInbar, head of the Fisher Institute’s
and a key organizer of the event, replied diplomatically: “Focus on the positive. We’re extremely encouraged by the interest we’re getting from NASA, Italian and European space officials, and by the fact that so many young soldiers and officers with [Israeli military intelligence] have elected to participate in this year’s conference.”