Ira stands around a telescope with a gaggle of kids making funny faces for the camera
Former Silicon Valley astronomer Ira Machefsky leads a stargazing trek for students in Israel’s Negev Desert. (Courtesy/Ira Machefsky)

This old-school tech veteran is now a guide to Israel’s night sky

In a galaxy in the not-too-distant past, Ira Machefsky walked the halls of Stanford University and UC Berkeley. Today he’s hard at work under the stars in Israel’s Negev Desert.

A former Palo Alto resident, Machefsky has adopted the moniker “Starman of Mitzpe Ramon” after parleying his lifelong love of astronomy into a business providing night tours of Israel’s southern skies. Mitzpe Ramon is a tiny Negev town (population 5,000) surrounded by camels, ibex and beautifully scenic desert wastelands.

With grandparents who visited Israel many times, relatives who lived there and his daughter’s desire to make aliyah after she married, Machefsky and his wife, Pam, knew it was only a matter of time before they followed in the collective Zionist footsteps of their family. They moved to Israel in 2009, and in the process, they earned the distinction of being the only new olim (immigrants) ever to move directly to Mitzpe Ramon under the auspices of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an agency that resettles immigrants to Israel.

Before all of that, the Tennessee native first made his way to the Bay Area in 1984, during the early stages of Silicon Valley’s personal computer industry. Working for Digital Equipment Corp., Machefsky negotiated sponsorship deals between DEC and Bay Area university engineering departments for equipment, capital and human resources.

“I was drawn in by the opportunity to be involved in this type of innovation before it was the ‘in’ thing,” he told J. from his Mitzpe Ramon home. “We were sponsoring research to lead the next generation of technology.”

At the time, DEC was the American computer industry’s second largest company. Among the innovations Machefsky worked on were windowing systems, bitmap displays, networking and video technology and high-capacity disk drives.

“That was not even dreamed of back then,” he said with a laugh, referring to 1980s-style disk drives that were deemed remarkable for holding 100 gigabytes, a paltry sum given that today’s drives can store as many as six terabytes, or 6,000 gigabytes.

You don’t just need a place to see the sky. You need a place to see magic.

Machefsky also had what he called the “privilege” of working with high-tech movers and shakers such as David Cheriton, Google’s first funder in 1998; John Hennessy, at the time an up-and-coming Stanford professor who became its president from 2000 to 2016; and David Patterson, now a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley whose high-tech research and interdisciplinary projects helped lead to billion-dollar industries.

These days, Machefsky hobnobs with anyone interested in peering into the night sky, a domain that has captivated him since he was a teenager in Memphis.

“I was fascinated with the sky and everything to do with astronomy,” he said, recalling a particular moment from his youth when he saw a shooting star on the horizon, blazing from one side of the sky to the other. “It was love at first sight.”

Decades after grinding a mirror to make his first telescope, Machefsky leads groups to the Tel Aviv University’s Wise Observatory, the only working academic research observatory in the Middle East. Universities from around the world mount telescopes at the site to monitor celestial activity. Machefsky and his tour groups make the nightly trek (except on Shabbat and holidays) in deceivingly cold temperatures to the edge of Makhtesh Ramon, a massive geological crater 1,500 feet deep, 29 miles long and six miles wide.

“You don’t just need a place to see the sky,” he said of the perfect viewing spot. “You need a place to see magic.”

His approach to the perfect tour is to be educational with a sprinkling of comedy, a dose of Jewish biblical history and Greek mythology and a dash of theatrics he learned in an improv class. Starting with the basics — the reason the Earth looks like it’s moving is because it turns on its axis — and then pointing out both familiar and unfamiliar constellations such as Orion, Scorpio, Leo and Libra, Machefsky highlights the beauty above. For information on his tours, visit

“People don’t see the sky anymore,” Machefsky bemoaned, noting reasons such as city lights, pollution and lifestyles that don’t include spending much time outdoors. “I give people a feel for what’s going on in astronomy — the motion of the moon, the planets and the stars.”

The “Starman” still keeps his hand in the tech world. He sits on a virtual Venture Capital panel for a course in entrepreneurship at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and he taught a course in venture capital for computer scientists there. But “for now,” he said, “my life is headed in the direction of the stars.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.