How the US-USSR space race, regional security threats, an arms race, and an upcoming election contributed to Israel’s first rocket launch, Shavit 2.
The Israel Aerospace control room before the Feb. 22, 2019 launching of the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90
Israelis were bursting with pride on Friday, February 22, 2019, whenthe first “blue-and-white” spacecraft successfully blasted off in the first ever privately-funded Moon mission.
The initiative marks the next step in the Israel Space Agency’s stated goal to “increase Israel’s relative lead in this field and position the country amongst the leading nations involved in space research and its exploitation.”
The notion that this tiny silver of a country could be a leader in space flight and exploration is rooted, in part, with the Israeli Air Force.
In September 1948, at the height of the War of Independence and the IAF’s battles against the Egyptian Air Force, the first edition of the IAF magazine featured a United Press article entitled “What Do You Think About Flying to Mars.”
Even before that, the Hebrew – and Yiddish- language periodicals frequently published articles about space exploration, while science fiction inspired children to look to the skies, as in “The Flight to Mars,” a 1947 book by author Yitzhak Avnon about a boy and his dog who flew to the Red Planet in a rocket ship.
Early Hebrew-language science-fiction books and games inspired children to look to the skies. Image: courtesy
In 1957, in the run-up to the Jewish New Year, children’s weekly magazine Davar Le Yeladim published a story written by “Uri” (Uriel Ofek) with pictures by “Nahum”(the well-known artist and illustrator Nahum Gutman).
In doggerel rhyme, the heroes of “Magen David to the Moon,” two young kibbutzniks named Gad and Rami, reflect on the year gone by and wonder how they can “contribute to research.” They hit upon the idea of building a kite that can fly to the Moon. Although some grown-up foreign scientists attempt to compete by launching a rocket, in the end the boys win a gold medal.
The heroes of “Magen David to the Moon” build a kite that can fly to the Moon and end up winning a gold medal. Image: courtesy
The story became real only a few months later with the October 1957 launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite. Just as this event thrust the United States into high gear to win the space race, so Israel was galvanized into action. The IAF magazine devoted almost its entire December issue to Sputnik.
More significantly, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion expressed interest in space exploration. At the opening of the Knesset’s winter session, with Sputnik three weeks into its orbit, Ben-Gurion said: “There is no doubt that the most important event which took place during the holidays was the successful launch of an artificial moon into the atmosphere by Russian scientists … This perhaps opens up a new era in man’s dominion over cosmic space.”
The Israel Air Force magazine devoted almost its entire December 1957 issue to the Sputnik launch. Image courtesy of IAF Magazine archive
Ben-Gurion knew that the USSR’s potential to control the skies overhead posed a real threat to Israel, as the Egyptian Air Force had access to advanced technologies from Russia. In addition, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, at that point president of the United Arab Republic (the union of Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961) had recruited German rocket scientists– former Nazis– to work on Egypt’s armaments program.
These factors were, in part, the impetus for creating Israel’s space program. In 1960, the National Council for Space Research was established in Israel, headed by Prof. Ernst David Bergmann. On July 5, 1961, the first Israeli missile, the Shavit 2, a two-stage missile for meteorological research,was launched into space from Palmahim Beach.
Shavit 2 was a most successful failure, according to a 2011 Israel Defense magazine story marking the rocket’s 50-year anniversary, which revealed previously confidential information.
In 1961, the space race between the USA and USSR was in full swing. Nasser was running an arms development program that included ballistic missiles. However, since the missiles would not be ready in time for Egypt’s Revolution Day celebrations, “It was decided to purchase a few small meteorological rockets from the US, and present their launching as an achievement for Egyptian scientists in the field of space.”
Mossad head Isser Harel presented this intelligence to Ben-Gurion, who decided to steal Nasser’s thunder – literally – by ordering Israeli armaments development authority Rafael (which may have already been at work on the Jericho ballistic missile project) to build a rocket that could be launched into space before the Egyptians.
Israel Defense notes wryly that, “He [Ben-Gurion] had another reason: the election campaign was going on during those weeks, and such an achievement would, of course, harm neither Israel nor the ruling party Mapai.”
Within a few weeks, the rocket was ready. The launch took place on July 5, 1961, in the presence of about two dozen persons including Ben-Gurion, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Deputy Minister of Defense Shimon Peres (who reportedly named the Shavit, the Hebrew word for “comet”), Chief of the General Staff General Zvi Zur, Defense Ministry General Director A. Ben-Natan, Deputy Chief of General Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Rafael staff, reporters and others.
As the story goes, Ben-Gurion wanted to watch the launch from close-up, but Meir called him back into the protective bunker before liftoff.
The official announcement as published in the Israeli press ran: “The rocket was designed, built and launched by a team of Israeli scientists and technicians. Present at the time of the launch were the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Minister of Defense, the Chief of the General Staff and scientists. The objectives of the experiment were achieved.”
Immediately after the launch, Ben-Gurion declared: “This launch proves the ability of Israeli scientists. The entire rocket is made in Israel.”
Israel’s newspapers enthusiastically reported the outpouring of national pride at the news, and there was positive coverage from the US, British and French news media, along with lukewarm reportage from the USSR, and almost no coverage in the Arab press.
Israel’s newspapers enthusiastically reported the news of the Shavit 2 launch. Image courtesy of National Library of Israel via Wikipedia
Writing in newspaper Davar, poet and writer Natan Alterman made an association between the missile launch and the Eichmann trial then ongoing in Jerusalem. “The Shavit 2 that catapulted over the walls of oursiegeand the threats surrounding our Jewish country, carried the issue before the entire region, testament to the amazing will to liveborne within our besieged people. But aside from the military potential… never since the establishment of the State has there ever been a singularly more important achievement in national security. Truth be told, Shavit 2 may be not only a meteorological research tool for weather prediction, but also atool that will assist, in its wake, in changing meteorological conditions to the benefit of our entire region.”
Cooling regional temperatures would have to wait. In fact, Israel Defense writes,“For years, the defense establishment did not publish many photos of the Shavit 2 or reveal its dimensions. Apart from a photograph of the rocket’s silhouette shooting up early in the morning, engulfed in a plume of smoke, the only published photograph was of Ben-Gurion and his retinue looking at the rocket while it was still on the ground.” The photo’s framing was deliberately misleading, according to Israel Defense, shot from a low angle to give the impression that Shavit was much bigger than its actual 3.76 meters in height.
There was also another ruse at work: Although the missile’s first stage was successful, in the second stage the rocket blew up. In truth, the meteorological research objectives were not achieved.
Nonetheless, the defense establishment was satisfied with Shavit 2’s performance. “The Shavit 2 launch was a significant propaganda achievement during a period of great tension between Israel and the Arab states… Ben-Gurion received thousands of telegrams and letters, congratulating Israel on joining the space era.”
Two days after the launch, the US announced it would sell a number of rockets – again, for meteorological experimentation – to the UAR.
There was more fallout, according to historian Prof. Rafi Mann, noting in an essay that Ben-Gurion was not immune to opponents who claimed the launch was nothing more than an election campaign stunt.
“In the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Ben-Gurion was asked to explain why he did not consult with the government before deciding on the launch, why he and Peres were photographed alongside the missile wearing military jackets, and why the Shavit 2 launch was not kept secret. Ben-Gurion explained that he had received information that Egypt was about to launch a missile, and that this had to be precipitated. In general, he said, there was no need to attribute such importance to Shavit 2, as it was only involved with meteorological research.”
“But the clear political context could not be denied. In fact, no one in Mapai tried to do so, and if there were any doubts about that, these were erased a few days before the elections when the party itself published an illustration of a missile in an election announcement.”
This came in the form of a poster declaring, “Don’t send your vote into outer space! Vote Aleph – The Israel Workers Party.”
In the run-up to the 1961 elections, the ruling Mapai party use the Shavit 2 launch as leverage. Image courtesy of National Library of Israel
In the elections of August 15, 1961, Mapai lost six Knesset seats but Ben-Gurion was able to form a government, and remained in office another two years.
In early 1963, news was revealed that German scientists were assisting Egypt in the production of long-range missiles and non-conventional weapons. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the development of Egyptian missiles was halted.
In 1965, a university-based research project called the Institute for Space Research was established at Tel Aviv University, headed by nuclear scientist Prof. Yuval Ne’eman. The Institute later became, in 1983, the Israel Space Agency (SALAH).
In 1988, Israel truly entered the space era with the Ofeq-1 satellite that was carried aloft by a Shavit launcher — harbinger of the string of amazing Israeli space advancements leading up to last week’s Beresheet lunar lander mission – with much more to come.