The Israeli Amos 6 communications satellite that was destroyed in an explosion on the launch pad last week was reputed to be the country’s most advanced. But what Israel — and the world — lost during the spectacular fire in Cape Canaveral, Fla., was much more than a $200 million piece of equipment.
In addition to serving television providers in Israel, the Middle East and Europe, Amos 6 was to set to provide Facebook the means to beam its stripped-down internet service to Africa. The loss of the satellite atop the Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket is thus not only a major setback for Israel’s communications satellite industry and a loss to its private investors, but a setback for the development of parts of the third world as well.
“This is a very severe blow which could place the future of the industry in doubt if it is not dragged out of the mud,” said Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency, which built the satellite with Israel Aerospace Industries. We share Ben-Israel’s concern for the future of this particular industry. But we also focus on a different concern that arises from these developments.
IAI is one of the most advanced aeronautical firms in the world. It has helped to elevate Israel into the rarified atmosphere of a global technological leader. Many of us remember the young, nascent Israel that, like many countries in Africa today, was an emerging third-world nation. It was a small state with a much-needed national military which struggled to grow from its agrarian roots to what is today a robust industrial economy and high-tech powerhouse. But upon achieving those levels of success, the challenge is to stay there.
There is worry within Israel’s aerospace industry that the country will begin to lose its qualitative edge in space. The government has said it will decrease its funding of the program, something that may lead to its collapse. And it will not fund a next-generation Amos 7 satellite. None of this affects Israel’s military satellite program.
Israel is still a small state with a big military. But what it produces agriculturally, economically and technologically benefits countries around the globe — a fact to be kept in mind by those who would seek to impose their vision of what the modern Middle East should look like.
Israel’s leadership needs to think long and hard about what to do following the failure of Amos 6. How, if at all, does this impact Israel’s ability to retain its edge and continue to punch well above its weight? Does the Jewish state’s role on the world stage require Israel to be in space? Or are those intellectual, economic and human resources better allocated elsewhere? These are certainly questions worth considering, and there are no simple answers. But the debate is certainly not just about dollars and cents.