by Douglas Messier
A former fighter pilot paying to become the second Israeli to fly into space late next year made his fortune by supplying military weapons, security systems and other services to the governments of Angola, Nigeria, Haiti, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Eytan Stibbe, 62, will join retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and two unidentified individuals on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for a privately-funded mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Stibbe will pay for the cost of the trip and stay at the station.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin announced Stibbe’s involvement in the mission on Monday in a Twitter post.
“An exciting day at Beit HaNasi. Godspeed to you, #Eytan Stibbe and thanks to @RamonFoundation for supporting the initiative. Go in #peace, return in peace. We’re waiting for you here at home,” Rivlin wrote.
The Ramon Foundation is named after the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died along with his six crewmates when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003.
Stibbe co-founded the Ramon Foundation and serves on its board of directors. The foundation is leading the scientific and educational mission in collaboration with the Israel Space Agency (ISA).
Axiom Space has not identified the other two participants on the mission. Media reports have indicated that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman are scheduled to fly to the space station next October to film a movie there.
However, a Haaretz story said Stibbe will be taking one of the seats reserved for Cruise and Liman because production of the movie has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Lucrative Career
Haaretz reports that Stibbe, a former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, founded the LR Group in 1985 with two with two fellow squadron members, Ami Lustig and Roy Ben Yami.
In 2008, after an investment in Gilat Satellite Networks, the company’s comprehensive activity was revealed in an article by Guy Leshem in TheMarker. He reported that in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the company was involved in a series of defense transactions with the Angolan government, which was involved in a war against rebel forces, in cooperation with the Israeli defense industries. For example, LR was involved in the sale to Angola of eight U.S.-made Bell 212 helicopters, which had been retired from the Israel Defense Forces. The company was also involved in the building of airports and deploying aerial defense systems.
After several intensive years of defense deals with Angola, the three businessmen decided to discontinue this activity and focused on civilian projects – building agricultural villages throughout the country, along with other civilian activities in the fields of infrastructure and cellular communications.
Stibbe was in charge of the financial side of LR before leaving the group in 2011. He started a company called Mitrelli, together with Haim Taib (who was a senior executive in LR), while Ben Yami and Lustig continued to engage in other business activities in Africa for LR.
From its inception, Mitrelli was active in the fields of infrastructure, water and energy in Africa. According to various media reports, its activity totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. According to foreign reports, in 2017 a company affiliated with Mitrelli signed contracts with the Nigerian government to supply planes, helicopters and ships to its navy, in order to combat maritime crime.
Two years earlier, a company affiliated with Mitrelli signed a 10-year deal with Haiti’s finance and economy ministry, related to the defense of aerial and ground borders, for $50 million.
Stibbe now focuses much of his time on Vital Capital Fund, which invests in agriculture, hospitals, urban infrastructure and renewable energy in Africa.
A Completely Private Mission
Axiom Space announced last week that it had signed up three passengers for the commercial flight last week.
“In other words: the first private crew to go to orbit in human history – the crew of Ax-1 – has been assembled,” Axiom Space said in a LinkedIn post. “Mission launches NET [no earlier than] late 2021. More details soon.”
Stibbe, who will focus on scientific and educational projects during the flight, is set to begin training soon.
“In the coming months he will begin training for space travel, with a concentrated training series in the US, Germany and Russia in the three months before the trip,” ISA said in a press release.
“Stibbe will be at the station for 200 hours during which he will conduct a series of unprecedented experiments in Israeli technologies and scientific developments by researchers and start-ups that will take him into space, and is expected to hold activities to make the space world accessible to Israeli children,” the space agency said.
“In the coming weeks, the Ramon Foundation, in collaboration with the Israeli Space Agency in the Ministry of Science and Technology, will publish a ‘call’ for scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs who will be invited to submit their proposals for experiments,” ISA added.
“The proposed experiments will be selected by an independent scientific committee, consisting of representatives of academic institutions, leading research institutes in Israel and government central and development bodies,” ISA said. “The committee will be headed by Inbal Kreiss, a senior figure in the Israeli aerospace industry and the director of innovation in the aerospace systems division.”
AX-1 mission commander Lopez-Alegria will be flying to space for the first time since returing to Earth in April 2007. The former U.S. Navy pilot has already logged nearly 258 days in space during four flights, including 215 days as commander of the Expedition 14 mission at the space station.
Lopez-Alegria made 10 spacewalks totaling more than 67 hours during his astronaut career. He retired from NASA in 2012 after nearly 20 years at the space agency.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be the third type of spacecraft that Lopez-Alegria will fly. He is a veteran of three space shuttle flights and a Russian Soyuz mission.