Israeli scientists aim for the moon and more

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“Israel’s journey to the moon is a story that everyone can dream about. It’s a good example of Israeli chutzpah.” So said a top female Israeli aerospace engineer at an open discussion at a women’s breakfast hosted by the South African Friends of Sheba.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Dec 05, 2019

The engineer, who could not be named for security reasons, worked on Israel’s first mission to the moon on the world’s first privately-funded lunar lander, Beresheet.

Her story is an example of how pursuing a passion for science can take you out of this world. The height of her career was 400 000 km above the earth, she joked. “I’ve loved science since I was in high school. My drive now is to lead in the technological world. My challenge is to keep us leading in the space industry which isn’t always easy in our dynamic world of industries.”

She argued that even though the moon landing itself failed, the mission was a success as it inspired the next generation. Beresheet began with three Israeli students who submitted their idea to the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, a global contest that pledged $20 million (R292.1 million) to the first private entity to land a spacecraft on the moon. Ultimately, Beresheet crashed just before landing on the moon.

“Israel is still in the top seven nations to orbit the moon even if we didn’t land,” said the engineer. “One of the man goals of this mission was educational – to encourage the young generation of Israelis to study STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. Now, many kids are dressing up as astronauts for Purim, and more students are studying science and will be the next generation of satellite engineers. Our message to them is that everyone can do better, that they must set the bar higher and higher each time. The most difficult moment is after failure, but they’re often the best learning experiences. We’re now considering what the next mission to the moon will be. We don’t want it to be the same, we want to have a significant scientific goal or study to work towards.”

As a start-up nation, Israel is well placed to espouse such a philosophy. The country is leading in space technology and science, with far fewer resources than the superpowers who have traditionally excelled in the industry. “Space has no borders. It’s a very good platform for international co-operation,” said the engineer. “The fact that Israel, as a small country, is leading is a huge achievement. We’re part of the space club, made up of only eight nations that have end-to-end capabilities in space. These start from designing a satellite to developing, launching, and operating a satellite in orbit year after year. Most of our communication comes from space. For a small country like Israel, being able to have our own communication satellite in space and get our own images from space is a strategic capability, enabling us to work on scientific and technological breakthroughs.”

In light of its political and geographical limitations, Israel can launch satellites only to the west, which has forced it to be increasingly innovative. “All other nations launch their satellites to the east because the earth’s rotation is to the east so you gain earth’s natural movement,” said the engineer. “We’ve therefore needed to build lightweight satellites with the same capabilities, which has actually been to our advantage in space technology.”

As a proud mother working in a very demanding industry, the engineer has also had to exercise ingenuity in achieving a work-life balance. Asked how she does it, she insisted that women can have it all as long as they make the decision to do so. “There’s no one answer, you have to create your own balance day-by-day. It’s personal, and it’s not easy. When you decide that following your dreams is an important thing to do, you do it, and you stick with your decision. We need to dare to dream our dreams, to believe, for us and for the next generation.”

While she acknowledges the challenges that come with working in a male-dominated field, she chooses to be positive. “It’s my choice to create my personal balance and to look only on the bright side. And to tell my kids that this is my choice.” Her daughter was so inspired by her mother’s example, that she, too, is an engineer, working in cyber technology.

Also underpinned by positivity, the South African Friends of Sheba aims to strengthen the relationship between the South African Jewish community and Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, Israel. At the breakfast, Executive Director Naomi Hadar said the Sheba Medical Center rated one of the top 10 hospitals in the world, has a philosophy of non-discrimination, helping everyone from Israelis to Arabs to Palestinians. Sheba’s work also benefits the globe, said Hadar, evident by its worldwide outreach programme. “Whatever we achieve, we want to share with the world. Wherever there’s a disaster, Sheba is among the first to be there, whether it’s helping with floods in Mozambique, or with the earthquake in Haiti.”

In South Africa, the organisation aims to share knowledge and develop outreach programmes. It does this with the support of organisations like Eurolab, an innovative oncology company focusing on cancer treatment, management, and care. “We know that South Africa has good medical facilities, but they’re only available to about 20% of the population,” said Hadar.

“The rest depend on the government.” From working on developing a portable clinic scanning for cervical cancer in Modimolle, to starting a nurses training programme in KwaZulu-Natal, the group is committed to making a difference. “Lately we’ve also sent many patients from South Africa to get treatment in Israel. We can’t help everyone, but whatever we can do, we will do.”

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