Following a series of last-minute delays, astronaut Eytan Stibbe is expected to blast off from Cape Canaveral on Friday evening (6 p.m. Israel time) and become Israel’s second-ever man in space.
Stibbe, a former fighter pilot, will travel along with three fellow astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Their mission will be operated by Axiom Space and commanded by its vice president, Spanish-American astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.
Stibbe will be carrying out some 35 experiments for companies and research institutions on his privately-funded “Rakia” (as it’s known in Hebrew) Mission to the ISS.
Aside from Lopez-Alegria, Stibbe will be joined by Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot; and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, who along with Stibbe will serve as a mission specialist.
Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon, who was part of the 2003 STS-107 mission of Space Shuttle Columbia, was killed along with six other crew members when the Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere, just 16 minutes before it was due to land back on Earth.
While last-minute weather changes or other unforeseen impediments could once again delay the mission, the astronauts themselves held a type of “general rehearsal” on Thursday ahead of Friday’s planned launch.
The mission is being hailed by Axiom Space, NASA and other industry players as a turning point in the latest expansion of commercial space ventures collectively referred to by insiders as the low-Earth orbit economy, or “LEO economy” for short.
Eytan Stibbe, far left, in zero-gravity training with the rest of his crew (Axiom Ax1ZeroG)
“We are not space tourists,” Lopez-Alegria said during a recent news briefing, adding that the Axiom team has undergone extensive astronaut training with both NASA and SpaceX and will be performing meaningful biomedical research.
“It is the beginning of many beginnings for commercializing low-Earth orbit,” said Axiom’s co-founder and executive chairman, Kam Ghaffarian. “We’re like in the early days of the internet, and we haven’t even imagined all the possibilities, all the capabilities, that we’re going to be providing in space.”
Israel’s largest hospital, Sheba Medical Center, in conjunction with The Ramon Foundation and the Ministry of Science and Technology, is sending an entire miniature space lab with Stibbe within the framework of its ARC Innovation Center Space Lab’s research mission.
Throughout his 10-day stay on the INSS, Stibbe will perform six Sheba-led zero-gravity studies – the most being sent by any single institution – aimed at promoting medical innovation and understanding the impact of zero gravity on human physiology.
“The ARC Space Lab is a first of its kind initiative to harness the opportunities of new space endeavors to promote health care innovation and benefit humans in space and on Earth,” said Dr. Harel Baris, who heads the ARC Space Lab. “The variety of ARC Space Lab’s studies integrated into the Rakia Mission demonstrates the potential of human space research to shape the future of health care.”
Stibbe will perform the following Sheba-led studies:
1. Analyzing the effects of microgravity on vascular function in the brain in order to help develop potential BBB-targeted drugs which can treat Alzheimer’s disease. This first-of-a-kind study is expected to provide insights regarding the possibilities of leveraging microgravity and its physiological impacts as a platform to treat neurodegenerative disorders.
2. Examining urine samples from astronauts before, during, and after the mission to evaluate the microbiome presence in urine using modern methods of genetic sequencing, in an attempt to cure urinary tract infections that greatly affect astronauts. The study is being done in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson University and US-based diagnostics lab MicroGenDX.
3. Studying astronauts’ emotional states using sensors to analyze vital signs, sleep physiology, cognitive function, visual and auditory performance, and emotional skills, and show how astronauts manage stressful events. The study is being done in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson University and Israeli startups X-Trodes and StrokeAlert.
4. Evaluating the ability of non-medically trained space crew to operate the Veye device – an innovative solution developed by a team of researchers from the Eye Institute at Sheba Medical Center and the School of Physics at Tel Aviv University – which can perform needle-free blood tests in real-time.
5. Evaluating the impact of exposure to microgravity on space crews’ eyes using iCapture – an advanced retinal scanning device developed by professionals at Sheba, alongside Spring Biomed Vision, the St. John’s of Jerusalem Eye Hospital in Jerusalem, and the ARC Medical Innovation Center at Sheba Medical Center.
6. Examining how advanced medical technologies can be used to analyze the immune system’s response to the harsh conditions of space travel. The study will utilize a precision oncology diagnostics platform developed by Israeli start-up OncoHost to perform proteomic analysis.
“Sheba’s collaboration with the Rakia space mission has opened up the possibilities for a whole new world of research, promoting the development of groundbreaking drugs by helping us to understand the impact of zero gravity on human physiology,” said Dr. Yaacov Lawrence, a senior radiologist and ARC Space Lab researcher at Sheba Medical Center. “This mission is one of many unique ways that Sheba is constantly working to accelerate and redesign health to provide essential, innovative and revolutionary treatment.”
The Rakia mission will be Sheba Medical Center’s second adventure into space. Last year, it collaborated with the Israel Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency and Space Pharma to launch an experiment into space that examined the effects of microgravity on common bacteria that were shown to be resistant to antibiotics.
“There is no place that inspires humanity and sparks the imagination more than space,” said Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, Director General of Sheba Medical Center. “This research mission fulfills a lifelong dream I have had to combine medicine and space, enabling us to expand the boundaries of health well beyond what is possible on Earth.”
Stibbe, for his part, said he will miss his wife, Ora, the most while in space, adding that he intends to join his family’s Passover seder long-distance.
He will also bring with him several items highlighting Jewish heritage and tradition.
One of those items is a dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew), the beloved Hanukah children’s game that will exemplify the connection between ancient Jewish tradition to the innovation and progress of the space mission. The zero-gravity conditions in space will allow the dreidel to spin endlessly.
He will also take an ancient coin dating to the Bar Kochba revolt.
“As part of the Rakia Mission to the International Space Station,” Stibbe said in a previous interview, “I will be taking with me a bag filled with items that have a special meaning to me. It was clear to me that one of these items will be a symbol of Jewish history.”
The Bar Kochba revolt was an uprising of Jews in Judea against the Roman Empire from 132 to 136 AD, led by Simon Bar Kochba. “Year two of the liberty of Israel” is imprinted into the coin, in defiance of Roman sovereignty.
Published on 04-08-2022, Israel Hayom