Ex-fighter pilot and businessman, Eytan Stibbe, will become the second ever Israeli to go into space, the country has announced. His friend and predecessor, Ilan Ramon, was killed during the ill-fated US Columbia mission in 2003.

Stibbe is scheduled to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) from Florida in late 2021, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said during a ceremony at his residence in Jerusalem on Monday.

“This is a day of national joy, and great pride” for Israel, Rivlin said, adding that Stibbe would prove that “even the sky isn’t our limit.”

Israel’s second astronaut is expected to spend 200 hours or just over a week in orbit, performing “Israeli technological experiments” that will advance the country’s technology and science, according to the president.

Before the launch, he will go through an extensive training program, which will take him to the US, Russia and Germany.

Stibbe is 62 and served as an IDF fighter jet pilot for 43 years, participating in numerous combat missions and achieving the rank of a colonel. He’ll become one of the oldest people to travel to space.

Being a wealthy businessman, Stibbe will be funding the space journey and the experiments he’ll be doing in orbit from his own pocket. He founded and now chairs the multi-million-dollar Vital Capital Fund, which invests in developing nations in Africa and elsewhere.

The ISS mission that he’ll participate in is the first to be manned entirely by private astronauts. 

During the ceremony, Stibbe told the media that since he was a child he “looked up to the stars and wondered what there is beyond what I saw,” but it was Israel’s first cosmonaut, Ilan Ramon, who embedded the dream of actually going to space in his head.

The pair became friends during their service in the Israeli Air Force, with Stibbe supporting Ramon’s family after the tragedy on February 1, 2003.

On that day, US space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it was reentering the atmosphere following a mission to the ISS. The blast, which occurred just 16 minutes before the planned landing, killed all seven crew members on board, including Ramon. He was returning to Earth after spending 16 days in space.

It was the second deadly accident for the US Space Shuttle program after Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986.

Ramon’s son, Tal Ramon, was also present at the ceremony, calling Stibbe’s mission a “victory” and saying that he was moved that his father’s friend had decided to make this “contribution” to the people of Israel.

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