August 8, 2010, Updated September 14, 2012

It’s men like Dr Zvi Kaplan who are leading Israel, one of only eight nations in the world to launch an indigenous satellite into space, into the billion-dollar space industry.


Zvi Kaplan (right), the head of the Israel Space Agency meets astronaut Charles Frank “Charlie” Bolden Jr., (left) the new head of NASA.

An Israeli has yet to moonwalk – and the country’s only astronaut Ilan Ramon perished on a tragic NASA mission in 2003 – but Israel has big ambitions to jump into the billion-dollar space industry.

One of only eight nations in the world to launch an indigenous satellite into space, Israel’s government recently announced an $80 million boost to its space activities in research and development, which should jibe well with the country’s established defense and high-tech communications industries.

While the space industry is commonly associated with the development of space-related defense technologies, according to Dr. Zvi Kaplan, director general of the Israel Space Agency, its civilian applications are also extensive, and in some cases critical. For example, the monitoring of global warming from earth to space or from space down to earth is vital for studying the phenomenon and potentially mitigating risks.

ISRAEL21c met with Kaplan to learn more about the man and the Space Agency he has stewarded for the past six years, which is leading Israel and the Middle East toward this new frontier.

One of several dominant figures in Israel’s space industry – alongside Haim Eshed, who heads the Israeli space program at the Ministry of Defense and Major General Prof. Itzik Ben-Israel, head of the Program for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University – Kaplan, born in 1944, says he views himself as someone continuing the work of the other prominent men in Israel’s space sphere, “to help create a vision for the new millennium.”

A Jerusalem childhood like ‘Love and Darkness’

His vision to funnel Israel’s existing industries and academic research into “space” will likely be a legacy for future generations. According to Kaplan, a trained plasma physicist who worked for many years at Israel’s Soreq Nuclear Research Center, the development of a space industry has many positive aspects beyond the obvious financial ones. It is his hope that it will help to stem the brain drain, and keep the country’s brightest minds at home in academia, research, corporations and government.

Born in Jerusalem, Kaplan says that the neighborhood where he grew up resembled the one described by leading Israeli novelist Amos Oz in his autobiographical novel A Story of Love and Darkness. “It was one of his best. It describes the atmosphere in Israel for the Ashkenazi Jews that came with nothing before the outbreak of the Second World War in the ’30s and ’40s and during the end of the Second World War and a bit later,” Kaplan reminisces.

Like tens of thousands of other Jerusalem Jews, Kaplan’s family immigrated to Israel from Europe. Both his parents – his dad from Lithuania, his mom from Poland – come from families of Holocaust survivors.

“Those days, between the wars, East Europe’s young Jews were going to study in western universities,” says Kaplan. “My father came to Palestine after studying chemical engineering to work at the Dead Sea when the potassium production began,” he recounts. “My mother came from a very religious family, but which was also very modern, so all the girls got an education. She was a pharmacist, and came to Israel not with a strong Zionist motivation, but to follow some of her family members who were already living in Israel.”

Growing up in Jerusalem, like most of his peers Kaplan served in the army. He was in Nahal, an infantry brigade that at the time combined military service with the establishment of new agricultural settlements.

After the army, he attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study math and physics, later obtaining a PhD at the Weizmann Institute, where he specialized in plasma physics. He then spent one year in the US at Bell Laboratories under Kumar Patel, a prominent laser physicist from India who discovered the carbon dioxide laser.

Making way for the next generation

For the bulk of his career Kaplan worked at the Soreq center, rising to the position of director. His claim to fame in space is the development of the “electric propulsion” system. In recognition of this and other achievements he was named director of Soreq in 1997.

In Israel, as in the rest of the world, the industry was born during the 1950s, when scientists believed that nuclear science would “control everything – energy, agriculture, medicine – mainly through the production and utilization of radioactive isotopes. But the focus of science went in quite different directions,” Kaplan says.

Now the world looks to silicone chips and information and high-tech communication. Yet despite its lack of popularity, nuclear research is still important, for many reasons. Reminders were the disasters like Three Mile Island and the meltdown at Chernobyl. “It’s a legitimate field, because it’s needed. The energy crisis you cannot ignore; and we cannot make miracles only with the sun and wind,” says Kaplan.

At Soreq, Kaplan benefited from the international movement while working in the field of electromagnetic propulsion, participating in projects initiated by the Reagan Administration. The space applications that he worked on at Soreq helped to prepare him for his current position at the Israel Space Agency, which he’s held for the past six years.

Nuclear science is important in space applications so that space missions can deal with radiation encountered in space, cosmic and particle radiation. “When you send a system to space with electronics it becomes very sensitive to radiation,” Kaplan explains.

Live according to our time

Residing in central Israel in Rehovot, Kaplan relates that so far his two sons and his daughter have provided him with “almost” nine grandchildren. He says that he plans to retire next year, so that a younger candidate can move into his position. That plan dovetails with his belief that “we should live according to the time set aside for us, and let our younger generation take managerial positions at an early stage in their careers, otherwise we are losing something [in society].”

Although older people may be unwilling to retire and many can work well into their 70s and 80s, Kaplan believes that the system should not be asymmetrical. “If you don’t give responsibility to a bright scientist when he is about 40 he will never become a manager,” asserts the man who is hoping to help launch Israel’s scholars and the country’s defense and communications industries into the “final frontier.”

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