Israel mourns death of its first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
As Israel mourned the death of the nation's first astronaut, its prime minister promised that the Jewish state would remain involved in space travel. Condolences continue to be exchanged between Israel and the United States over the deaths of Col. Ilan Ramon and the six American crewmembers that died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
During Sunday's cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged other Israeli astronauts would follow the example of Ramon. Sharon spoke as his nation was immersed in shock and grief over Ramon's death. U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer attended the cabinet meeting. Sharon noted that the seven astronauts on the ill-fated Columbia had "paid the price for man's conquest of space, and the world salutes them."
Flags flew at half-staff and the Israeli newspapers and television were flooded with reaction to the disaster.
The head of the Israeli Air Force, Dan Halutz, was among those who paid tribute. "Embarking on this space flight, Ramon undertook an important mission, the purpose of which was to expand human knowledge. And that mission to space, as in many other missions before, Ilan and his friends demonstrated an outstanding courage, determination, and vision that inspire us all," he said.
Many Israelis saw Ramon as a positive symbol of optimism amid the gloom of more than two years of violence with the Palestinians. During the mission, Ramon spoke with great pride at being a representative not only of Israelis but Jews around the world. "Of course I took several special things, first of all the Israeli flag, the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and I took some commemorative things from the Holocaust and I took also a wine glass, a very special glass for the Kiddush, for the Shabbat," Ramon said, referring to the prayers on the Jewish Sabbath.
Even before the Columbia shuttle exploded as it was making its landing approach Saturday, the Israeli government announced a new medal dedicated to Col. Ramon. The medal's inscription integrates a verse from the Book of Psalms: "His excellency is over Israel and his strength is in the skies."
The 48-year-old pilot was the son of a Holocaust survivor. His military career included the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. He also fought in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the Lebanon War in 1982. He served as a fighter pilot in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. He was chosen as Israel's first astronaut in 1997, then moved to Houston the next year to train for shuttle flight. His wife and four children live in Tel Aviv, but had been living in Texas for the last four years. They were in Cape Canaveral, awaiting the astronauts' return from the Columbia mission.
He became an overnight hero when Columbia lifted off 16 days ago. The launch was covered live on Israeli TV, and it was front-page news in every paper. One Israeli TV network was carrying the landing of the Columbia live when communication was lost. Channel Two had Ramon's 79-year-old father at the station, and was preparing to interview him when the first images appeared.
World leaders including President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and expressed their condolences on the tragic accident. Sharon, in turn, delivered his regrets to the American people and the astronauts' families, and added that it is at moments such as these that "the hearts of the American and Israeli peoples beat as one... Let us pray together and support each other."
A memorial ceremony for Ramon was held Sunday morning at the Beersheva high school at which he studied. Mayor Yaakov Turner said that he would work to establish a memorial site for Ramon at the Air Force Museum in nearby Hatzerim. Past and present students of the school took part in the moving ceremony.
Arutz-7's U.S. correspondent Eli Sechbach that after he interviewed Ilan Ramon a few years ago, "I remember being so favorably impressed. He was a man without an ego, to whom it was very important that he could connect world Jewry and U.S. citizens via his work in space." Ramon said at the time that though he was not a religious Jew, he planned to represent all streams of Jewry during his trip. "He was a source of pride for all the Jewish communities here," Sechbach said, "and he visited many of them a few years ago. I remember him laughing and saying, 'I'm only 1.70 meters (5 ft. 8 in.), but soon I will be the 'tallest' Israeli in the world.'"
Arutz-7's Kobi Finkler reported other Jewish aspects of Ramon's flight into space: "When he circled over Jerusalem, he emailed President Katzav that he recited the Sh'ma Yisrael prayer. His friends say that he was always inspired by the Zionist dream.
"Because his mother was a Holocaust survivor, he took along a drawing of Earth as it might look from the moon, drawn by a boy who died in Auschwitz shortly before the end of the war. As a representative of the State of Israel, he took along a Presidential pennant, as well as flags of the Israel Air Force, the two cities in which he lived - Beersheva and Ramat Gan - and the high school in which he studied. He hung a mezuzah on one of the doors in the spacecraft; he took a silver 'hand' used for reading from the Torah; the world saw him proudly wave his Kiddush cup used on the Sabbath; and in his bag was a Book of Psalms. At every press conference he would proudly say, 'I am an emissary of Zionism and the Jewish People.'"
During a televised videoconference with Prime Minister Sharon and other Israelis midway through the trip, Col. Ramon showed Israeli viewers the miniature Torah Scroll he took along with him. During the Holocaust, Holland's Chief Rabbi Dasberg brought the scroll with him to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There he met a boy, Yosef Yehoyachin, to whom he gave Bar Mitzvah lessons using that very Torah scroll - and then charged him with the mission of surviving and telling the story. Yehoyachin lived, arrived in Israel - and became the Israeli scientist who initiated the main experiment Col. Ramon carried out in space. He also gave Ramon that same miniature Torah Scroll to take with him into space - so that the story Rabbi Dasberg had left with him could be told around the world.
"Shattered Dreams" read the headline in the Hebrew daily "Ma`ariv," featuring a full-page picture of the explosion and an inset with a picture of Ramon, smiling and waving in his orange space suit. "Crying for Ilan," was the banner headline in Israel's biggest newspaper "Yediot Ahronot."
Underscoring the tragedy was Ramon`s father, Eliezer Wolferman, 79, who was cheerfully being interviewed on Israel Television when the shuttle was about to land. Then, with great anticipation, the camera went to the TV correspondent next to a clock at Cape Canaveral, showing the countdown to the landing. The clock ticked down to zero, but there was no shuttle! "There is a problem," the reporter said. Then Wolferman was ushered out of the TV studio so he wouldn't have to
receive the terrible news while on the air. "Ilan won't have a grave. My son is gone, my Ilan is gone."
Last week as Ilan Ramon was drifting over the earth he sent a message to President Katsav. He described his experiences and his love for his homeland. He described flying over Israel "This wasn't the first time," wrote Ramon, "but this time was the best of all." He saw Jerusalem clearly, and while gazing at the capital he recited the words of the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One."
Ramon showed no fear prior to the Jan. 16 launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia. "The chances an accident would happen in space are very small," Ramon told Ma'ariv last month. "As far as safety is concerned, I'm not concerned at all... I'm sorry, but I'm not afraid," he said.
"During takeoff you are sitting on a barrel of explosives that contains two million liters of fuel. The shuttle consumes 4,000 liters a second during the first eight hours of takeoff, until it starts orbiting around the earth," Ramon said. "In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else. The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup."
Ramon's military career included the 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor, a milestone for Israeli aviation, since the planes flew over Arab territory for hours without detection: The pilots flew in a tight formation to send off a radar signal resembling that of a large commercial airliner. At the time, the pre-emptive bombing of the nearly completed Osirak reactor was condemned by Britain, America, the United Nations and other nations as a clear breach of international law.
Ramon, who got his wings in 1974, had logged 4,000 hours of flight time and was part of the first Israeli squad to pilot American-made F-16 fighter jets in 1980. He also fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in the Lebanon War.
"I joined the Air Force exactly 30 years ago, and have been flying ever since," Ramon told Ma'ariv. "I was involved in several accidents, two of them serious. I had to abort, but thank God I made it in one piece. Accidents in fear are history for me."
In 1983, Ramon left the Israel Defense Forces, and finished an undergraduate degree in electronic and computer engineering at Tel Aviv University in 1987. One year later He returned to the Israel Air Force as second-in-command of a Phantom squadron. Ramon rapidly moved up the ladder and became colonel in 1994.
Ramon's future track as Israel's first astronaut came as quite a surprise. "One evening, someone from [IAF] personnel called me and said 'Do you want to be an astronaut'," Ramon told Yediot Aeronaut prior to Columbia's launch. "I said, 'Stop bullshitting me, I don't have time for jokes.' Then he told me that the air force commander had asked us to find someone to become an astronaut."
Ramon told Yediot that as a child he wanted to be a basketball player, but he wasn't tall enough. Since the shuttle cabin is two square meters, "this time I'll benefit from my short height," he said.
Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, 79, said he told the prime minister that "We never expected this. Up until the last minute we hoped it would all go smoothly... Now we don't have Ilan [anymore]. A great tragedy has befallen us."
Wolferman, who lives in the Negev town of Omer, said that even when the news broke that contact with the shuttle had been lost, he still believed there would be a successful landing. Friends and associates of Wolferman, as well as Omer mayor Pini Badash, flocked to his home. His mother's health is very poor.
"We are in shock and don't know what to do," Ramon's brother Gadi told Channel 10 television, choking back tears. "This was a dream come true for Ilan. He wrote me e-mails from the shuttle ... and was literally on cloud nine."