NASA Head: Israeli Scientists Have 'Unique Capabilities'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The Israeli scientific community has "unique capabilities" that will enable it to work well with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA head Daniel Goldin said Friday.

Goldin, who was visiting Israel this week as a guest of Israel's Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, met with Israeli officials to strengthen ties between NASA and its tiny Israeli counterpart, the Israeli Space Agency.

"The purpose of the visit was to get a better understanding of the capacity of the Israeli research community to work with NASA," he said in a brief interview before leaving Israel.

Although the ISA has one of the smallest budgets of any space agency worldwide, Goldin said that he had seen 'unique capabilities' in some of its research.

In particular, he praised Israeli research of dust particles in the air and also of climate.

While dust research may not sound very exciting - except perhaps if it was to produce a way to prevent it from settling in one's house - dust in the air has a considerable impact on rainfall, a critical factor in a part of the world where severe drought is a constant problem.

Some experts have even predicted that future wars in the Middle East will be fought over water, rather than land.

Israeli scientists, said Goldin, had been able to take data from NASA satellites, develop theories and apply them to their climate research.

In one case, the Israeli researchers had made the important discovery that Lake Chad in Africa, which today holds just five percent of the water it did just a few decades ago, had become a great source of dust.

Years ago, researchers believed that dust in the air helped rainfall, he said. Now they have a better understanding. They can use the new knowledge to develop better farming techniques, which in turn will combat desertification and produce heavier rainfall.

Israel announced earlier this week that it would be sending its first astronaut into space, with a unique research project on - yes - dust.

Goldin said he found a "tremendous level of excitement" over the fact that an Israeli will join the space shuttle mission next May.

Air Force pilot, Col. Ilan Ramon, who has received training at NASA over the last few years, will not just be going along for the ride, Goldin said.

He will manage Israel's experiment on the shuttle and also be the principal operator on eight other experiments, and the backup operator for nine others, he added.

During his visit, Goldin also promoted one of NASA's international goals - stimulating the interest of young people in science and technology, from kindergarten to post-doctorate levels. To this end, Israel is considering calling 2002 its national "space year."

Like any other program, the level of cooperation between NASA and ISA will be based on the commitment of the Israeli government to fund the operations. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged to do all he could to secure the funding to make the cooperation a reality.

NASA works with more than 70 countries around the world in jointly funded cooperative relationships. The amount of funding available establishes the level and intensity of individual countries' relationships with NASA, Goldin said.