Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Seeks U.S. Permission to Launch Rockets from NASA Facility in Virginia

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel Seeks U.S. Permission to Launch Rockets from NASA Facility in Virginia

Article excerpt

Israel Seeks U.S. Permission to Launch Rockets From NASA Facility in Virginia

The Clinton administration currently is considering a request by the Israeli-government-owned defense conglomerate Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) to launch its "Shavit II" rocket from a NASA flight center in Wallops Island, VA. The Shavit II, or "Next," is a four-stage rocket designed to launch lightweight satellites into low Earth orbit. IAI's request is the most recent in more than three years of attempts by the Israeli company to gain access to the U.S. commercial and military launch markets. If approved, the door will be open for Israel to compete in what industry experts predict will be an extremely lucrative market in the near future, potentially to the detriment of U.S. companies in the satellite-launching business, and possibly in violation of U.S. commitments to prevent missile proliferation.

In Israel's Interest

For Israel, it is imperative that the Clinton administration agree to IAI's request for several reasons. First, and most importantly, Israel hopes to recoup the billions of dollars it has invested in its space and missile industries. The Shavit series of launchers and the successful 1993 launch of Israel's Ofeq-3 spy satellite have consumed substantial sums of money which IAI hopes to regain by selling the Shavit II on the international market. This will be virtually impossible, however, if IAI doesn't find a launch facility outside Israel. According to John Pike, director of the space policy project at the Washington, DC-based Federation of American Scientists, "Israel verges on being a space-locked country."

The reasons, Pike explained, have to do with the physics of space launch. Rockets must travel in the neighborhood of 18,000 miles per hour to leave the Earth's atmosphere. Given the speed and direction at which the Earth rotates, launching due east adds approximately 1,000 miles per hour (at the equator) to a rocket's velocity. For political reasons, however, Israel is forced to launch due west, which means it loses nearly 1,000 miles per hour. This translates into a 10 to 20 percent loss in payload-carrying capabilities, according to Pike. "If Israel wants to be a player in the launch market, they have to find another place to launch," he said.

IAI has another very specific reason for wanting access to a U.S. launch facility. Earlier this year, IAI and Pasadena, CA-based Core Software Technology formed a company called West Indian Space Limited, a 50-50 joint venture incorporated in the Cayman Islands. West Indian Space hopes to launch Israeli-built satellites on Israeli-produced launchers as part of a plan to make commercial satellite imagery available via the Internet in an easily accessible and user-friendly format designed by Core Software Technology. If successful, West Indian Space could quickly gain the upper hand in what some estimates suggest will be a $6 billion commercial satellite imagery market.

The first of the companies' 10 planned satellites will be launched into orbit on a Russian rocket, but Core Software chief executive officer Steve Wilson told the Washington Report that "we would like to use the Shavit down the road." He said that neither of the partners in the joint venture want their satellites in orbits available through launching from Israel. Further, it would significantly reduce costs if IAI is able to launch its satellites from the United States on its own delivery vehicles.

Causes for Concern

There are two primary concerns for Clinton administration officials considering the IAI request: proliferation and U.S. commercial interests. On the proliferation side, the United States is a party to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a 25-member international suppliers cartel established in 1987 to slow the spread of nuclear-capable missile delivery systems. Allowing Israel, which has never signed the MTCR, to launch the Shavit II from the United States appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of U. …

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