The head administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden, Jr., made a surprise landing on Jan. 28 in an unusual place, an Arab town far off the tourist track in Israel's Western Galilee, to promote the farfetched idea of bringing the Jewish and Arab communities of Israel together -- through research into outer space.
But perhaps it isn't such a far-fetched idea for Bolden, after all. His experience as an astronaut viewing the earth from outer space gave him "a new perspective to see God's creation and to see how beautiful it is."
"So what are we not doing right?" he asked the 200 people packed into a sustainable green building on the edge of Sahknin, a town of 30,000 people. It is here that Asaf Brimer and Dr. Hussein Tarabeih, an Israeli Jew and an Israeli Muslim, are working toward establishing Moona, A Space for Change, set to be the very first Arab-Jewish environment, science and space research center in the world.
Bolden's visit was part of the Israel Space Agency's annual Space Week conference on the 10th anniversary of the death of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, on Feb. 1, 2003, in the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia.
Co-founder Asaf Brimer said that outer space, a region "without border controls or boundaries," is the perfect place for bridging the gap between Arabs and Jews.
Brimer shared that his story was a typical Israeli story. He grew up on a kibbutz and became an IDF fighter pilot. After working for many years in the Israeli aerospace industry, he decided to quit and do something to bring about change within Israel. He teamed up with Tarrabeih to create the vision of Moona.
In many ways, Moona has the potential to foster working relationships between Arab and Jews by working on common environmental and space issues. But it is an extreme uphill battle. The town of Sahknin, in fact, is where a 1976 protest against the expropriation of Arab land ended in six Israeli Arab deaths and demonstrations are held there each year in commemoration.
Brimer said that this fact didn't persuade him. He said it took him months of working with local Arab leaders to win their trust. "It was very unnatural for them to trust me, as an IDF fighter pilot," Brimer explained. "I really believe that the NASA visit helped them believe in me and my good intentions for this project."
His optimism is shared by Dr. Tarabeih, the head of TAEQ, Towns Association for Environmental Quality, the first environmental initiative to arise out of the Israeli Arab sector.
The Moona co-founders aim to open a research center dedicated to the environment, science and space and outreach programs for students and adults. Merav Fleischer, lead designer of the project, said, "The name Moona resonates in three languages: in Arabic, it means wish; in Hebrew, it is part of the word 'faith,' and it draws on the moon in English." A Jewish Israeli who had lived in the Western Galilee her whole life, she said that she never even stepped into the town of Sahknin until she began working on the project.
"This work has changed my outlook and my belief in the future of Israel in a fundamental way," Fleischer said.
"Who is involved with America's space research today?" asked Bolden during his presentation to the 100 or so Arab and Jewish students. He answered his own question. "Russia. At one time, the United States and the Soviet Union were the bitterest of enemies. But we gotta be willing to forgive people. And that's hard work."
Bolden carried a message of hope as he walked around the rudimentary science fair that was hobbled together in two weeks, after receiving word from the United States Embassy that Bolden and other members of the NASA administration. Rare is the science student who gets to share a robotics project with NASA staff, and the students were beaming.
"It is an honor for us that you came to visit us here," said a Sahknin ninth grader in English.
"It is an honor for me to be here," said Bolden in his homey South Carolina accent.
Bolden said NASA and Israel are looking for more avenues of cooperation, including satellites for the study of climate change. The visit also fit into Bolden's vision of NASA moving beyond outer space and dabbling with earthly politics. In a 2010 interview with Al-Jazeera, Bolden enraged critics when he stated that a priority of NASA was to "to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and ... help them feel good about their historic contribution to science ... and math and engineering."
But that faux-pas was behind him during his afternoon visit, his enthusiasm contagious.
"Bolden's visit was inspiring," said co-founder Tarabeih."It really was a small step for NASA but a huge step for us in the Galilee."
During his talk, Bolden shared anecdotes from his NASA flights, of leaving the gravitational field and taking photos of other astronauts upside down, what it was like going to the bathroom (just like down on earth) and the time he and the other astronauts put Goldfish crackers in a plastic bag, watched them swimming around, and then let them out so they floated through the spacecraft until they caught them and ate them up, one by one.
"What we need now is to capitalize on the momentum of the NASA visit," said Jennifer Russell, a green building consultant who works with Tarabeih at TAEQ. A native of Texas, whose grandfather is a Christian minister and whose sister converted to Judaism, Russell moved to Sahknin in 2009 and married a Muslim. "And saving the environment is something we can all agree on."
But can all the good will bring in $100,000 necessary in seed money to get Moona moving along?
According to Bolden, yes. As he told the students, "You are all here today, together. You demonstrated that you can do the things that everyone says was impossible."
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