International Space University opens its first program in Israel with kickoff in Haifa

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HAIFA — The International Space University opened its annual summer session Tuesday, the International Space Studies Program. This year it will take place in Haifa, Israel with their university host being the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology. The premiere technology university will play host to a seven-week session with over 100 science and engineering students from around the world.

If you have never heard of the International Space University (ISU) and are puzzled how such an institution of higher learning could ever be located in space, this program is probably not for you. The school’s main program is located in Strasbourg, France, straddling the border with Germany. The school was co-founded in 1987 by aerospace engineer Peter Diamandis, Space Policy Institute grad Todd Hawley, physicist Robert Richards and the late great astrophysicist Carl Sagan. The first Space Studies Program (SSP) took place a year later, whose major accomplishment was bringing students from the Soviet Union’s MIE to study at Boston’s MIT, ISU Director Dr. John Connolly told the audience at Rappaport Hall in central Haifa. This year, it will be its first foray in Israel.

There will be 24 countries represented, from the largest contingent sent by China to the first-time participating state of Ghana. At the formal opening event, with dignitaries from across the countries, Connolly told Geektime there would be 104 students participating this year, a bit less than the average of 120.

The program will host a number of visiting titans in the field, starting with astrophysicist and former astronaut Dr. Jeffrey A. Hoffman, who will be talking Wednesday night about the journey to repair the Hubble Telescope in the early 1990s (for those interested, there will be a live webcast). Others to appear include Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, astronomer Dr. David Levy who co-discovered Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 that crashed into Jupiter, and lunar astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who will speak on July 26.

An international, intercultural industry

The UK's delegation of students, one of the largest in the Class of 2016, enters the hall at the opening ceremonies of ISU's international summer session in Haifa on July 12, 2016 (image, Gedalyah Reback)
The UK’s delegation of students, one of the largest in the Class of 2016, enters the hall at the opening ceremonies of ISU’s international summer session in Haifa on July 12, 2016. Photo credit: Gedalyah Reback

Students dressed in ways that reflected their countries of origin, as well as carried their respective banners to the opening stage at Rappaport Hall in central Haifa. Besides the Mayor of Haifa and Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, ambassadors from Russia, Poland and Ghana made appearances, plus several veterans and insiders from the space industry. It was an extremely formal affair for people who were clearly rocketing above Cloud 9. Between bites of steak and sips of wine, there was a lot of commiserating.

For anyone who knows space, calling experts and well-connected professionals in the industry “insiders” goes against the ethos of people working in the field. Indeed, there was a strong vibe of community radiating from the people on hand.

Besides the community atmosphere, there was a shared familial feel to the whole thing. Alumni, often acting as volunteers, return to staff the session. That’s common with conferences or meetups that hop around the world, but in this case it is a two-month-long chunk of schedule that returnees feel is too valuable to ignore.

“ISU was founded on the 3 I’s philosophy providing an Interdisciplinary, Intercultural, and International environment and when you combine this with an intense two-month program, and a bunch of brilliant people — this intensity creates lifelong friendships,” Vera Gutman (@VeraGutman), a program veteran and SSP organizer, told Geektime.

Jarosław Jaworski (@imperator_jarek), or simply JJ, brought credentials from the Polish Space Industry Association and a focus on collecting space debris to the session. As a veteran of the Class of 2014, he’s also on the organizing staff. He explained his current work on robotics and clearing up old satellites.

Space Debris is a new topic with many technology gaps, seeking for innovations, so companies that did not collect space heritage could deliver valuable input. I myself during studies participate on few educational programs and competitions organized by the European Space Agency,” reflecting the advanced professional background of a lot of the participants: The average age of students, by the way, is 32. Jaworski has also been involved in PR efforts for space projects and organizing other conferences. “I made my SSP in 2014 in Montreal, now I’m Teaching Associate for the Artificial Gravity project in on-going SSP16 in Israel.”

Ingenuity and innovation for the cosmos

The program plans to have several tracks: space applications, engineering, human performance and medical, plus space law. Another will focus on business and entrepreneurs designed to meld with being in the Startup Nation for the summer program. Lectures will also be given by several people, including SkyFi co-founder Daniel Rockberger. He told Geektime that in previous years he had taken a week off to go lecture. This time around he would actually be delivering fewer talks, although SSP being in Israel certainly meant he would be stopping by more often. A session on July 22 called SpaceUp will also bring an international series of meetups around space innovation to the Technion campus.

Rona Ramon, the widow of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, spoke about the chance to make history to students at SSP's opening ceremony (image, ISU Space Studies ‏@ISU_SSP via Twitter)
Rona Ramon, the widow of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, spoke about the chance to make history to students at SSP’s opening ceremony. Photo credit: ISU Space Studies ‏@ISU_SSP via Twitter

A parade of dignitaries might have led the opening ceremonies, but the most notable speaker to grace the stage was Rona Ramon, the widow of Israel’s sole astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003 (and her son in an Israeli Air Force plane crash in 2009). She has managed the Ilan Ramon Foundation in the wake of those tragedies.

“For us it is an honor but also a dream. When we lived in Houston — when we moved it was 1998 — and it was obvious that we’re going to represent our country. But immediately when you’re walking in the corridors in NASA, you feel a different atmosphere. You meet people who made history. You feel that everyone is working for a higher target for all mankind.”

Her message to those in the audience was to be in awe of those around them and to realize they were already on that pioneering journey themselves. Just being there, they were becoming more involved in a global community.

“Bringing people together no matter who they are…we all come together as a space family. Good people working for such a high and important target really warms my heart that our family and the Israeli space family is joined by such wonderful people.”

SSP 2016 will take place between July 12 and September 1, 2016 at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Several events will be open to the public. You can check out their schedule of public events here.

Featured image  via Twitter.

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