(April 17, 2019 / JNS) As NASA astronaut Richard R. (“Ricky”) Arnold projected slides showing images of his time on board the International Space Station, a lecture hall filled with young Israel Air Force personnel sat spellbound, absorbing his every word.
“You’re the officers of tomorrow—young airmen and airwomen. Your opportunities are limitless because of your experience,” Arnold said to dozens of personnel at the Palmachim Airbase, south of Tel Aviv, on April 4. “The skills you are learning have immense promise in aviation, space and industry.”
The location of the lecture was no coincidence. Palmachim Airbase is home to Israel’s Missile Test Range, from where military satellites are launched and cutting-edge missile-defense trials are conducted, including interceptions in space of targets simulating Iranian missiles.
After his lecture Arnold received an in-depth tour of the Missile Test Range, where he met with its commander, Lt. Col. A (his full name has been withheld for security reasons). He also toured the 200th UAV squadron, which is based out of Palmachim.
“It’s been very enjoyable,” Arnold told JNS. “We speak the same language because our jobs are very similar. When you operate aircraft of any kind, it’s a common shared language.”
Referring to nature conservation efforts made by the massive airbase, which sits within a national park that houses protected species, Arnold stated, “It’s also great to see the great sense of stewardship towards the land by the Israeli military, the conservation ethic and the education component. It’s really exciting to see.”
Arnold’s visit to Israel included a trip to the Hula Valley to get a look at the massive flocks of migrating birds there. The trip was organized by Yossi Leshem, a zoology professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, who has studied bird migrations for five decades.
Asked by JNS to describe seeing our home planet from space for the first time, as well as the teamwork involved in such a complex endeavor, Arnold said, “I had someone once tell me—who was a senior astronaut—that once you get to space, the first thing you want to have happen is to have everyone you know see what you’re seeing, because your perspective on our planet will be forever changed. And of course, what we do in space is pretty complicated and it takes a gigantic team around the world for us to make it happen safely.”
In an exclusive interview with JNS, Lt. Col. A, commander of the IDF’s Missile Test Range, agreed with Arnold that a common language had easily developed during his visit.
“We started talking about constraints posed by the surroundings, by safety requirements and the need to avoid harming ships,” said Lt. Col. A. Palmachim Airbase is surrounded by some two million civilians, several cities, strategic sites and the busy Ashdod Port.
To avoid endangering the local population, all launches from the Missile Test Range are to the west, over the Mediterranean Sea and against the Earth’s rotation. Extensive safety precautions are in place, the commander said, noting that “the Mediterranean Sea is not exactly ours.”
“This was my first visit with an astronaut,” he said. “It was amazing to hear him, and to discover that our experiences are very similar, although his are somewhat more extreme. We fire the missiles [into space] while staying here on the ground.”
A time of ‘rising requirements’
Founded in 1969, the Missile Test Range launched its first military spy satellite in 1988, followed by launches every few years. In 1991, after Israel came under Iraqi Scud missile attack, the Israeli defense establishment began developing the Arrow ballistic missile-defense system, and from 2000 onwards, live interception tests occurred at the site.
These live-fire drills were eventually joined by new defense systems coming online. Interception trials occurred for the anti-rocket Iron Dome system, and the mid-tier air defense system David’s Sling, from 2012 onwards. From 2014 onwards, the Arrow 3 system, which launches a hi-tech interception vehicle into space to destroy incoming missiles, began holding tests here.
Lt. Col. A described a time of “rising requirements” as Israel prepares to defend itself against increasingly sophisticated threats. Iran’s highly advanced weapons industry continues to unveil new missile types.
“We constantly monitor the challenges and our ability to intercept in between the layers of defenses. If one interceptor does not strike, we ensure that the second will. These are the sort of trials awaiting us. This unit also fires satellites into space,” said Lt. Col. A.
Israel is one of eight countries in the world that can build and launch satellites.
“We know that Israel is building itself into a space power. I can’t go into details, but we have satellites in space, and they provide us with intelligence 24-7 in a peaceful manner. Anyone can be in space, and we are there, collecting intelligence peacefully but still safeguarding our interests. I assume there will be more [satellite] launches like this in the future,” said the commander.
Asked to describe the mood at the Missile Test Range during sensitive launches, Lt. Col. A said that “the rhythm of this unit is really incredible. It begins calmly, and then picks up pace ahead of the trial. A month before the trial, the entire unit works like an integrated orchestra. Everyone knows what they have to do at every stage. They’re all working with checklists.”
When it comes to satellite launches, “the mood before the launch can’t be described,” he said. “It takes 10 minutes before we know if the orbital insertion has been successful. Those are the longest 10 minutes in the world. Afterwards, the applause and joy is incredible.”
‘When you’re up there, you don’t see borders’
Earlier, during his lecture, Arnold told the mesmerized Israeli audience about how he spent 10 straight days underwater to model what it would be like living on another planet, and how refreshing it was to return to the planet’s surface after being in orbit and “smell the life on Earth.”
He also described his two journeys into space, sharing what it was like to “go from sitting still at sea level in Florida to being at 27,000 kilometers an hour in about eight-and-half minutes” before entering low Earth orbit.
“What do you notice? You survived the ride. And everything is floating. The view of the planet—there are certain things you can’t train for. It’s overwhelming. The view of the Earth—you can’t train for that.”
Once on board the ISS, Arnold controlled robotic arms to install solar arrays. On his second journey, this time via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, he stayed in the ISS for 197 days.
Originally an oceanographer, Arnold talked about his transition into space exploration, his three spacewalks totaling 19 hours outside, and the surreal experience of traveling around the planet every 90 minutes, seeing 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 24 hours.
He also talked about working with colleagues from Russia, Japan and Germany—”people I now call family.”
Referring to current U.S.-Russian tensions, Arnold said, “you look for the areas that you can agree on, and climb up that ladder. The U.S. and Russia agree that space exploration is worthwhile. We still agree that there are things we can agree on.”
“I’d be 400 kilometers away from home, flying over my wife, I’d wait 20 minutes, and then be on the other side of the Earth,” he said, as city lights, fishing boat clusters, thunder storms and auroras he’d photographed from space flashed out of his projected slides at the audience.
“We did 300 experiments on any given day,” he said.
After landing in Kazakhstan, Arnold recalled feeling that he was home.
“I didn’t think, ‘I’m in Kazakhstan,’ ” he said. “When you’re up there, you don’t see borders. I see a beautiful Middle East.”
Brig. Gen. Yoav Amram, Palmachim base commander, took to the stage after Arnold’s lecture, and said, “It is an honor to have you here. What I take from your story is that the first thing is perspective. You talked about looking back 70 years ago [to the Second World War], and then having a team with guys from all over the world, from countries that were enemies—now they can work together,” he said.
“The second thing I take is the need for collaboration. That we need to be able to do this … that teamwork is about a lot of partnerships.”