By participating in the private space mission Axiom-1, from April 8 to 25, 2022, businessman and former fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe became the second Israeli and the 583rd orbital traveler in history. We interviewed him in Paris on September 23, during the 73rd International Astronautical Congress.
How did the Rakia project come about?
Astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the Columbia shuttle accident in February 2003, was my friend. I had been to his launch and remained very close to his family. I knew about space and would have loved to go there, but I never imagined that it would ever be possible. Until the American astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is now a consultant at SpaceX, called me and asked me to go into space with him. Garett is a very funny guy, a real comedian. So I joked: "Of course!" "No, I'm serious," he answered: "Are you going to space with me? This was just before the launch of the Demo-2 mission, at the end of May 2020, and there I started to understand what it meant because, until then, I didn't know anything about Axiom or anything else. I told my family about it, and they told me to wait until Demo-2 returned safely in early August. It became serious in September-October, and in October we signed.
A very official announcement...
Yes, the mission was announced in November 2020 by the president of Israel because, as soon as I told him about it, he immediately knew how important it would be for the country. We had experienced a tragedy nineteen years earlier with the death of Ilan Ramon, and manned space flight in Israel had been associated with that tragedy ever since. The opportunity to change this feeling was there, and the president really said to me: "Thank you for informing me about this mission, I want to announce it", although it was a private initiative, not a government mission. And after the announcement, everybody wanted to join the project, willingly: the ministries (Science, Technology, Education and even the National Art Fund), the government academies, the schools, everybody... So we created professional committees, for science, for education and for art. These committees selected the proposals and built the mission, based on what seemed feasible - we didn't even know what facilities we could use on the ISS... If a team wanted me to work on DNA, what equipment could we take with us, would I be allowed to use the glovebox, would I get the training? There was a lot of back and forth with NASA and SpaceX, and we were able to send equipment several months in advance [using the Dragon CRS-24 and Cygnus NG-17, launched in December 2021 and February 2022, respectively]. So we built a really hectic, very aggressive program that included a lot of education. And today [less than five months after the end of the Rakia mission], a lot of the educational experiments we conducted are already integrated into the Israeli national education program : videos on physics, geography, politics...
You have indeed shot a lot of videos for youth...
Yes. But I knew that I could not do everything in flight arrange and adjust the camera, make sure there is no astronaut behind me, read my text, speak loudly, perform the experiments... So I did the demonstrations, explaining what I was doing, often in Hebrew of course (to be understandable by children), but also in English or French. And then we asked a well-known Israeli actress to explain the images.
And you set up a control center in Israel ?
Yes, to make all of this possible, we built a mission control center in Tel Aviv, on a platform that was given to us by Check Point Cyber, an Israeli cyber company. We got all the licenses from NASA and SpaceX to get live video feeds from the station, so the scientists could sit in Tel Aviv and talk to me (via Houston or Huntsville), when I was working on their experiments. For example, in creating lenses, they would tell me in my earpiece to use this or that, to take more or less time, it was live. And we had a team stationed at Mission Control in Houston, which was very busy because they worked a lot of nights and had to constantly translate what I was saying when I spoke in Hebrew. Initially, NASA wanted everything in English, mostly to make sure we didn't say anything wrong. But I insisted on speaking Hebrew...
How long did your preparation take ?
The training lasted about seven months, between September 2021 and April 2022. It was planned to be shorter, over five months, but there were delays. So we had extra time, which allowed for more preparation and rehearsal of experiments, both for scientific research and for educational operations. I had a full training with my daughter Shir, who is a pediatrician and was my understudy, so that we were prepared in case something happened to me, whether I got the coronavirus or whatever: she could replace me at a moment's notice. I even spent a week at the European Astronaut Center in Germany to familiarize myself with the Columbus laboratory. However, we did not go to Russia. Initially, before the war in Ukraine, we were supposed to spend a week in Star City, near Moscow. But anyway, we didn't conduct any activity in the Russian part of the station, where we had every right to circulate - especially when the toilets in the American part were down...
We imagine that you had to organize yourself to be available for so long...
I dropped out. Even before training, I dropped everything for over a year to prepare for this mission, because we wanted to put together a great mission. We weren't just going to go to the station, stay there and then come back. We put together a very sophisticated program.
How did you find the SpaceX team ? Have you met Elon Musk ?
At SpaceX, they are fantastic. No, I've never met Elon Musk, but the general manager and the head of the management team. They are super-talented, very smart, very hard-working people. You really have to visit SpaceX: it's a remarkable industry, completely digital, paperless. People are very focused. We were trained from morning to night, our instructors even continued during meals and after dinner, they were preparing for the next day...
How was the launch ?
The launch itself was a joyful moment. Super joy. It was very smooth, with low acceleration : 1.5 g, 2 g... It's fun [Laughter]. You look at your colleagues, you look through the window, you follow the speed everything is amazing. When we arrived in orbit, we were under the blue light of the Earth, but I can't tell you anything specific. It took us nineteen hours to get to the station. When we were asked to return to our seats before docking, I saw the ISS out of the blue: it was incredible. And after docking, while we were still taking off our suits, putting our stuff away or doing public operations, I heard movement outside, and I went to the hatch I saw people on the other side, like Tom [Marshburn] and Kayla [Barron]. You know the reunion is coming, the door is going to open, it was all exciting.
How did the Axiom crew break down on the ISS ?
When we got there, Matthias Maurer (the German astronaut - he's great, I love him) went to move into the American quarters. Mike, " MLA " our commander, slept in the Airlock, Larry chose the Dragon, and Mark (the Canadian) took the Casa, the Columbus bedroom. I also slept in the European laboratory, simply against the wall, like a bat. This is done very well.
Was the subject of the war in Ukraine discussed with the other crew members ?
No, not at all. It was strategic, no discussion, it was strictly avoided. Scientists, educators, we don't talk politics. But we had a great time. Every Saturday night there is a movie night at the station. The first time, we were treated to the American comedy Princess Bride, which was pretty fun. The second time, the Russians chose the disaster movie Saliout-7... Can you visualize the scene ? Sitting in the station, watching a movie about a station that encounters lots of problems... It's quite a memory ! [Laughs] And then on board, the cooperation is incredibly good. The Russians would come to see you and if they noticed that you were not succeeding in something, they would help you and put you on the way. And that was super-helpful because at first, to set up a video camera with hundreds of buttons, it took me an hour. But I only needed fifteen minutes after the lesson! [Laughs] A wonderful experience.
The bad weather on the ground allowed you to stay on board an extra week...
Exactly : it was great ! The postponements of the return to Earth allowed us to do all the things we didn't have time to do, but also to complete and redo some experiments, and thus to collect more data for the scientists. For example, I took videos of thunderstorms above the clouds, whose effects we will be able to study.
What do you remember about this flight ?
It was not only the flight on the ISS that was exciting : the whole preparation of the mission was exciting. On the Nasa side, and then on the SpaceX side, both having a completely different culture, but very mission oriented. It was very interesting to see all these differences. And then there's the European Space Agency (for Columbus), which is somewhere in the middle, which is very open culturally. I enjoyed it very much, and I recommend to the Israeli Space Agency to collaborate more with ESA than with Nasa, because it is multicultural. French, Italians, Germans coming and going : it really suits the nature of Israel better than the very strict facilities of Nasa.
We learned about everything during the flight sleeping, eating, working... But the experience I was looking forward to above all was flying. Flying is my passion. So, whenever I had some free time, we would practice going from Node 2 to Node 1 without touching anything, then we would give a little push and float to the Russian segment without touching anything...
What have you been doing since your return to Earth ?
What we did immediately was write a mission report, explaining what we did, how it went - as a mission, not an astronaut's round trip - how you build a private space mission, an open source mission : this has never been done. You know, when astronauts go on the ISS, they spend all their time on maintenance, on spacewalks, on installations, on cleaning, on repairs. So they do very little science and education. In my case, it was 180 degrees opposite: I was ONLY doing science, education, outreach, phone calls, video conferences with kids, scientists, all with very little security maintenance.
Today I mostly give professional talks, for example to Israeli space industry groups. They know a lot more about space than I do, but they still have a lot to learn about how to do things, how to access the ISS. This post-tour experience is also very interesting. In addition, I participate in actions of the Ramon Foundation, created in 2010 after the death of Ilan Ramon's son, also a fighter pilot, killed during a training flight. The foundation seeks to inspire the younger generation and encourage them to dream big, especially in the fields of science, aviation and space.
How do you see the future of space tourism ?
I assume that when the ISS is destroyed, Nasa will focus on deep space and there will be private stations like Axiom. So there will be professional astronauts, in charge of maintenance and security, and different types of passengers, who will be trained for four months to work in space, understanding the risks and limits of microgravity: scientists, physicists, astronomers, doctors, artists, philosophers... I believe that space will be open to all professions, without the need to train and keep people for a whole career. You need a doctor? Send him/her! We need to open the doors to everyone. Before my flight, in Israel, scientists didn't even think about sending things into space...
For more on the Rakia mission, see www.eng.rakiamission.co.it (in English).
Interview conducted at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center in Paris.
Thanks to Agnès Séverin (Jil agency) for the proposal and connection.
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