In about a year’s time, when businessman Eytan Stibbe takes his seat in a SpaceX rocket and blasts off on an Axiom Space mission to NASA’s International Space Station, he won’t be the second Israeli astronaut in space. Rather, he’ll be the second Israeli citizen to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. The difference is important.
The late Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut in space and a close friend of Stibbe’s, was an active pilot who underwent a sequence of tests, examinations and training exercises before being chosen by the State of Israel to participate in a U.S. space agency mission. Stibbe’s flight, on the other hand, heralds a fast-developing new field: civilian space travel: Any multimillionaire with the cash can now join manned space flights.
Stibbe is an accomplished pilot. While serving in the Israel Air Force, he was dubbed “Eytan of the four plane downings” thanks to an incident in the first Lebanon war when he shot down four Syrian aircraft in a single sortie.
In order to illustrate the difference between Stibbe and Ramon, we should mention that Tom Cruise was originally supposed to board this particular space flight at the end of 2021. His mission was set to be included in the filming of the next “Mission: Impossible” movie. But the Hollywood star’s place was canceled due to production problems related to the coronavirus pandemic, and so it was Stibbe who received the much-coveted slot.
Stibbe’s flight will fulfill the dream of Axiom CEO and co-founder Michael Suffredini: promoting tourism to the International Space Station, which he managed for a decade during his time at NASA. The Israeli businessman will pay millions of dollars of his own money for the pleasure of becoming a space tourist. He will donate the money to the Ramon Foundation – an NGO in memory of Ilan Ramon and his late son Assaf and late wife Rona. This money won’t actually remain with the foundation, but will instead be transferred to Axiom as payment for the flight.
The flight was made possible after Axiom reached out to the Ramon Foundation for assistance in forging contacts with the local space industry. Aside from Axiom’s connection with the Israel Space Agency, the Ramon Foundation also identified an opportunity to send a second Israeli into space.
In fact, the foundation did begin its money-raising process with the aim of choosing an Israeli to receive the opportunity of a lifetime, and contacted a number of candidates about the flight. In the end, though, the person who received the honor was Stibbe, a member of the foundation’s board of directors. This choice made it unnecessary for the foundation to have to raise money for the flight, since Stibbe was able to pay for his ticket himself.
The flight agreement was signed between the Ramon Foundation and Axiom – but there will also be some government involvement: The Science, Technology and Space Ministry is expected to help with the foundation’s efforts to add educational value to the flight, which will include demonstrations of space experiments by Israeli students, as well as lectures and educational talks.
From defense to philanthropy
Stibbe, 62, is an international businessman who made most of his money from dealings in Africa. After his discharge from the air force in the early 1980s, he was for a short time an external adviser to the Israel Aerospace Industries for its Lavi fighter jet project. In 1985, he started the LR Group with two of his friends from the squadron, 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 fell out with Taib about a year ago and went his own way again. A small part of the dispute was revealed in March 2019 when French businessman Hubert Haddad claimed in a lawsuit filed in Tel Aviv District Court that Taib and Stibbe had cut him out of a partnership worth $200 million in the Ivory Coast. Stibbe backed Haddad’s claims in court and raised suspicions that Taib would also deprive him of his share from the joint agreements.
The lawsuit revealed that Stibbe, Haddad and Taib met with the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2015 regarding government debts of tens of millions of dollars to Mitrelli – debts Haddad claimed he had helped pay back. The lawsuit also indicated that Stibbe met with the president of Ivory Coast in recent years. The lawsuit was shelved a few months later, with the disagreement now in arbitration in London.
Stibbe devotes most of his time today to the Vital Capital Fund, a foundation for investments in Africa with an emphasis on social ventures. The foundation invests in agriculture, hospitals, urban infrastructure and renewable energy. In addition, he is active in philanthropy. Stibbe, married with three children, is the brother-in-law of the former director general of the Finance Ministry, Yarom Ariav.
The Ramon Foundation told Haaretz: “Eytan Stibbe is paying for the costs of the flight and everything connected to the preparations for it. Eytan is not flying for leisure purposes, he’s donating the 200 hours in which he will be in space in order to carry out experiments. We formed an independent committee headed by Inbal Kreiss, chosen in a fair and transparent manner, and we will also conduct broadcasts in Hebrew from space for children, for the first time.
“Eytan is also donating the costs of transporting and storing the equipment for the experiments that will be chosen. As far as the Ramon Foundation is concerned, this is a valuable and unprecedented contribution to promote both the private space industry and space education in Israel.
“The initial contact with Axiom was created through the Ramon Foundation, with the intention of trying to include an Israeli astronaut on one of its first missions – which are devoted to private passengers – as part of the coming era of mankind’s flight to space.
“This is a contribution by a private person, like the funding of the spaceship Beresheet. It was clear that we needed a special donor with vision. It was natural for the Ramon Foundation to turn to Eytan, thanks to his connection to the Ramon Foundation and his willingness to devote his entire trip to science and education in Israel. We are very grateful to him. This is a huge opportunity for advancing the private space industry and our education.”