Buzz Aldrin comes to Israel

Israelis seeking an escape from this week’s daily terror attacks couldn’t fly to the moon, but they had a chance to hear from someone who did — Buzz Aldrin.

In Israel’s terror-riven capital, the Israel Space Agency — the country’s version of NASA — is hosting this year’s International Astronautical Conference, the premier confab for all things space. An exhibition hall shows off a range of gadgets and robotics, and talks fill the schedule this week with titles like “The State of Space Situational Awareness, Conjunction Warning and Collision.”

Those of us not qualified to consult on “The Martian” film got the common thrill of seeing Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong. Of course, Aldrin said, he should have been the first. So why did Armstrong, the mission commander, beat him?

“He was closer to the door,” Aldrin said.

Standing next to two empty spacesuits and addressing a packed room, Aldrin, 85, was rambling and jovial, recounting his personal history and going into detail about technical issues in space, which some people in the room must have understood.

A West Point graduate, Aldrin joined the U.S. Air Force and fought in the Korean War before becoming an astronaut in 1963 – six years before he walked on the moon. Aldrin remained involved in space exploration in later years, devising plans for a Mars mission.

“For a little towhead boy growing up in Jersey to exhibit mathematical skill, to use his education and endurance to walk on the moon — wow!” Aldrin said.

The retired astronaut said the United States should reclaim the trailblazing role it once took in space exploration. He also pushed his plan for a Mars mission, calling for humans to orbit the planet and use robotics to explore it rather than just landing and coming back.

“I am so dedicated in many different ways to having the U.S. regain the leading program that we had,” Aldrin said. “It’s sort of frittered away, but I believe it can be rejuvenated for the benefit of all nations.”

One country whose space stock is rising is Israel, which is hosting the conference as it moves to expand its presence in the cosmos. Founded just three decades ago, Israel’s space program focuses on launching communications and reconnaissance satellites. Its first satellite launch occurred in 1988.

The country’s best-known encounter came in 2003, when fighter pilot Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli astronaut. But it turned tragic when his space shuttle, Columbia, exploded upon reentry, killing the seven-member crew.

This year has seen an Israeli space renaissance. SpaceIL, a team of three engineers working to land a spacecraft on the moon, is a top contender to win Google’s $20 million Lunar XPrize, which will be awarded to the first privately funded group to not only land a craft on the moon but have it travel on the lunar surface.

Last week, SpaceIL secured a contract to launch its dishwasher-sized craft toward the moon in late 2017 — the first team in the world to do so.

On Oct. 6, Facebook announced plans to launch an Israeli satellite, the AMOS-6, to bring Internet access to large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa.

And on Tuesday, NASA and the Israel Space Agency signed a cooperation agreement that enables joint missions, research, space exploration and other projects.

“There are amazing space capabilities in Israel,” said SpaceIL co-founder Kfir Damari. “Israel has a huge potential. Most of the [Israeli] space business was in security, and we’re the first step in civil space flight. I believe it can be something really significant for Israel.”

Space Shuttle Columbia: From Shoah to the stars

On Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, tragically taking the lives of all seven astronauts on board. Among those who never returned home were Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon — Israel’s first and only astronaut — and a miniature Torah dating back to the Holocaust.

Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors, had taken the scroll that was given to him by Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, an Israeli scientist and survivor of the Holocaust. Joseph had received the scroll as a boy in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from the rabbi who performed his secret bar mitzvah. To Ramon, the cherished item represented “the ability of the Jewish people to survive anything.” 

Now, thanks to journalist-turned-film director Daniel Cohen, this extraordinary story is told in the television documentary “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope,” premiering at 9 p.m., Jan. 31, on PBS in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the disaster and NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance.

“The thread of the film is a Holocaust story and the story of Ilan Ramon, but ultimately it’s a universal story,” Cohen said during a phone interview. “The challenge of the story, the entire time I was making the film, was to make it a universal story. And that became the story of the Columbia crew, who they were and how diverse they were in their backgrounds. And ultimately, one of the key messages in the film is that magnificence of diversity and what it brings to all of us.”

Cohen, a self-admitted “space nut,” was raised by his Conservative mother and Reform Jewish father. As a boy, he spent many hours playing out his space fantasies in the family living room pretending that a big blue chair was his Mercury space capsule. 

“I must’ve launched off into space hundreds of times in that chair,” Cohen said.

As an adult, Cohen landed in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 30 years. During that time he earned multiple Emmys for outstanding broadcast journalism and six Telly Awards for his first responder and safety advocate work. Additionally, he received honors from the Associated Press and other organizations for his medical and science reporting and investigative work.

Wanting to expand his career to include directing documentaries, Cohen found a story in 2003 that seemed perfect. 

“I was looking for a documentary to make, and when the Columbia disaster happened I was very tuned into the accident because of my fascination with space exploration,” Cohen said. “And about two weeks after the accident, I read an article about this little Torah scroll that Ilan Ramon carried with him into space, and I thought, ‘What an interesting new way to tell a Holocaust story to a new generation.’

“I had a friend at the time who was very high up at NASA, and I asked him if he was aware of this scroll that Ramon carried into space,” Cohen continued. “He said, ‘Yes, what about it?’ I told him that I would like to meet this scientist, Dr. Joseph, who had the Torah scroll and was working with Ramon.” 

Within minutes Cohen was on the line with Joseph in Tel Aviv. 

“I told him I was interested in making a documentary about Ramon and the scroll, and he said to me the one line that I would hear over and over again during the 10 years that it took to bring this film to television — and that was: ‘Anything for my dear friend, Ilan Ramon. You tell me what to do.’ And that’s how it started.”  

Cohen and Joseph worked closely for years on the story. The scientist did not live to see the project completed — he died in 2008 — but he is seen throughout the film. 

Cohen was determined that his film not be one that simply circulated through the usual film-festival route. With his background in broadcast journalism, he wanted to have it shown on television so that it would reach a wide audience. 

With no track record as a documentary filmmaker, Cohen knew that he would need a big name attached to his project in order to get it financed and produced. He eventually brought the project to Christopher Cowen, who at the time was working at actor/producer Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone. Cohen said Cowen loved the project and remembers the latter telling him, “This has Tom [Hanks] written all over it. It’s about two of Hanks’ passions — space travel and World War II.” 

Hanks and Cowen signed on to the project, and when Cowen moved over to Herzog & Co., taking the project with him, Hanks remained attached. Still, even with a team in place that included executive producers Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, along with Cowen as producer, the director still faced the challenge of how to tell a story about the Holocaust and the space shuttle tragedy in an uplifting way.  

The answer came when Cohen received a phone call from another Holocaust survivor from Bergen-Belsen who also had a Torah scroll. He told Cohen that his scroll was going to be carried into space by Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean as a tribute to Ramon. Cohen responded, “Thank you. You just ended my film for me!”

Although Cohen laments that he never had the opportunity to meet Ramon, he feels, in a way, that he has through all of the people he interviewed for the film, including the astronaut’s widow, Rona. 

“Here is a guy who, no matter what happened to him, always rose to the moment,” Cohen said. “Whether it was the Iraqi mission, where he was a young fighter pilot, or whatever happened to him during his air force career, that’s the kind of guy he was. That’s one of the reasons he carried the scroll with him. Because he wanted to demonstrate to the world who he was and where he came from.”  

Perhaps Ramon’s mission within the mission is best summed up in the film by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who concludes, “There’s something deeper than what we think in being what we are and him being what he was and what he represented. It’s not only that a human being can carry a scroll — but the scroll can carry the human being.”

Heschel West renaming for Israeli astronaut

Heschel West Day School in Agoura Hills is changing its name to honor Israel’s first astronaut.

During a Kabbalat Shabbat filled with song and dance on June 3, school leaders announced that the entity will be known as Ilan Ramon Day School beginning in September. As such, it becomes the first known school in the country to make its namesake the astronaut killed during the space shuttle Columbia’s fatal 2003 mission, according to Yuri Hronsky, head of school.

“He, as a person, is … both an Israeli and an American hero,” Hronsky said. “He embodied a lot of the values that we hold dear: family, community, discovery, love for learning, Judaism,” Hronsky added. “He believed in the seeking of the undiscovered potential of the world, which is what science is about, in the same way we sort of look on every child — that our job is to work toward the undiscovered potential of every child.”

The renaming comes as the school kicks off the celebration of its 18th anniversary. It also makes good on a promise the founders made to eventually change the name it took after school leaders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge helped them start the Conejo Valley school in 1994.

While the two schools were always independent, the Heschel board made its head of school available to get Heschel West off the ground and implement curriculum, Hronsky said.

“When we hit our 18th year this year, we sort of looked at it as a really opportune moment to step out with a new identity,” he said.

And if there was ever any confusion between the two schools in the past, there is no need to worry about that anymore.

“Each school really will have its own clear identity and will be able to move forward in very positive ways,” said Betty Winn, head of school at Heschel in Northridge, which is entering its 40th year. “I think that it’s a great time for both schools. … It’s just kind of a coming of age for everybody.”

Heschel West leaders created a committee late last year to begin the search for a new name. They conducted extensive interviews and surveys with past and present students, their families and community members to help divine how the school and its values were perceived and how that might be reflected in a name. In May, they decided on Ramon.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Ramon was 48 when he lifted off into space as part of the crew of the Columbia, which broke apart over Texas during re-entry into the atmosphere. The Israel Air Force pilot was a payload specialist involved with numerous scientific experiments.

“I think the new name really stands for how we can move forward in new frontiers, new beginnings, uncharted territories, and still hold true to who we are,” said Bruce M. Friedman, president of the school’s board of directors and the father of one student and one alumnus.

“We’re educating children today for yet-to-be-defined careers, yet-to-be-defined industries, yet-to-be-defined challenges, and our new name symbolizes our core faith in ethics, morals, in values, but still speaks to how we will prepare our kids to meet the challenges of the future.”

Hronsky stressed that while the name of the National Blue Ribbon Award-winning school has changed, nothing else has altered.

“Same school. New name,” he said.

Heschel West has 150 students who range from 2-year-olds to fifth-graders. That’s an increase from 118 students last year, before it added a preschool, but below its 160 students in fall 2008.

“The school went through several years of struggling,” Hronsky said. “The parents at our school, a lot of them were in businesses that got really hammered, and it became financially harder for families and the school was financially challenged for a few years.”

Tuition ranges from around $4,000 for the youngest children to $19,000 for the oldest. Last year, the school gave up on longheld plans to build a new campus in Agoura Hills, which was opposed by some residents, because it was no longer in its strategic interests, Friedman said.

Now, leaders remain squarely focused on the future. Shelly Hiskey, who has two children at the school and is co-president of the parent organization, said she’s not only thrilled with the choice of the new name, but she’s particularly happy with the organic process from which it came. It raised good questions about the institution, she said.

“What does our school stand for? What are the points that we cherish? What are the things that we want our children to learn at school?”

Still, Hiskey admits that it’s hard to let go of the old name.

“Imagine changing your child’s name after 18 years,” she said. “People have been used to that name, and it served our school well.”

Israeli pilot Assaf Ramon buried next to astronaut father

Israeli pilot Assaf Ramon was buried next to his father, astronaut Ilan Ramon, a day after he was killed in a training accident.

Ramon, 20, who was made an Air Force captain posthumously, died Sunday in a crash in the Hebron Hills while flying an F-16 aircraft as part of advanced training. He had completed the basic training course for pilots with honors in June, receiving his wings from President Shimon Peres. He had escaped death in a training flight in March.

His father, Israel’s first astronaut, was killed aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia in 2003 when it broke apart upon its return to earth.

The funeral at Kibbutz Nahalal was closed to the media at the request of Ramon’s mother, Rona.

“The State of Israel is lowering its flag, as a whole nation mourns the death of our fallen son,” Peres said in his eulogy. “All of our hearts are broken today because the personal child of the Ramon family was a child of all of us.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who postponed a meeting with U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell in order to attend the funeral, said earlier Monday that Ramon’s death was on the level of “a biblical tragedy.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak in an interview with Israel Radio said the news of Ramon’s death was “like a punch in the stomach.”

The Air Force continued to search for wreckage from the crash. Reports citing military sources said it is likely the investigation into the crash will take some time.

Though a mechanical failure is one possibility, reports say the Air Force is looking into loss of consciousness or human error as likely causes.

Assaf Ramon, the oldest of four children, was 15 when his father died. He had said he would like to become a pilot like his father and perhaps even an astronaut.

Ilan Ramon was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and participated in the 1981 strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

Astronaut Ilan Ramon’s son dies in IAF crash

The son of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon was killed in the crash of an Israeli Air Force fighter plane.

Capt. Assaf Ramon, 20, died Sunday while flying the F-16 aircraft as part of advanced training. He had completed the training course for pilots with honors in June, receiving his wings from President Shimon Peres. He had escaped death in a training flight in March.

His father, Israel’s first astronaut, was killed aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia in 2003 when it broke apart upon its return to earth.

The Air Force ordered all F-16 training halted until further notice. The plane crashed in the Hebron Hills.

Ilan Ramon himself was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and participated in the 1981 strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

Assaf Ramon, the oldest of four children, was 15 when his father died. He had said he would like to become a pilot like his father and perhaps even an astronaut.

‘Tragic Loss’ documents Israeli astronaut’s ill-fated flight

Space escapades have been filling the news of late, from the tale of a jealous NASA astronaut stalking her rival to Virgin Galactic’s 99-minute trek into space for $200,000. But it is all a far cry from the devastating turn space travel took four years ago, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart midair over Texas just minutes from landing in Florida.

One of the astronauts on that ill-fated mission was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. His journey on Columbia is documented in heart-breaking detail in “Columbia — The Tragic Loss,” an Israel-based TH production, which will be shown at UCLA Hillel on March 14.

A true Israeli hero, Ramon was the last of the eight pilots who bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. As the last in the formation, he held the most perilous position during a mission in which up to three of the pilots were thought likely to die. He did not hesitate to take that assignment, nor did he hesitate to serve as a member of the Columbia crew.

“I’m a very cynical guy. I don’t believe in human heroes,” director Naftaly Gliksberg said in a phone interview from Israel.

Gliksberg has made documentaries about searing political topics, ranging from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to global anti-Semitism to an upcoming film about Israel-Iran relations in the 1990s. When the filmmaker first met Ramon in Houston before the flight, he joked to the astronaut, “You are a nonstory; you have no prostitute sister; you are from a very well-off family.”

A clean-cut, handsome mensch, Ramon lacked the stereotypical cockiness of most combat pilots. As another astronaut says in “Columbia — The Tragic Loss,” Ramon was much “more of an artist” than the other crewmembers. The 60-minute documentary, which was released in Israel in 2004, shows a serene man, whose poetic sensibilities are revealed through his diary entries, which were retrieved from the wreckage.

This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the story, the way that the individual scraps of charred, torn paper survived the disintegration of the space shuttle and were reconstituted like missing pieces of a puzzle. A forensic expert finds the letters kof, dalet and yod, which seem to form a word, but she later discovers missing letters that spell out the word kadima.

This diary entry refers not to Ehud Olmert’s political party, which did not even exist in 2003 at the time of the Columbia disaster, but rather to the launch of the shuttle. Ramon wrote those words on the first day in flight. He also headlined another diary entry, “Kiddush,” and we see him speak to his family from space while holding a Torah rescued from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Like that relic from the Holocaust, the footage of Ramon fills us with melancholy. No one is massacred in this film, but there is a tremendous sense of loss, made all the more poignant because of the beauty of Ramon’s letters to his family.

At one point in the flight, which lasted about two weeks, he wrote in Hebrew of “a halo of green light emanating from the earth.” He also wrote about how the Earth appeared from space as one “borderless” sphere where we can all “try to live as one, in peace,” quoting from John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” one of the last tunes the former Beatle wrote before he was gunned down in 1980 by Mark David Chapman.

The documentary provides lengthy criticism of NASA for mismanagement of the shuttle program and its failure to rescue the astronauts when it became evident early on that foam on the exterior of the space shuttle had eroded and become debris.

Gliksberg said that NASA “lost many points [in Israel] after the crash and after the movie” came out. “I can not see that Israeli people will support a new pilot” in space.

He added that he was “shocked” that “two or three weeks after” the tragedy, NASA had already introduced literature with the tagline, “Focus on the Future.”

“Where are they running to?” Gliksberg asked. “Hold on! Look at the past!”

As valid as is the criticism of NASA, the strongest parts of the film come from hearing Ramon’s diary entries read aloud to his family and to us. When we see the reaction of his family and when we listen to this uncommonly modest and loving man write to each of his children and his wife about his devotion to them, we cannot help but be moved.

It doesn’t matter much that the opening credits run against the backdrop of an amateurish rendering of the solar system, nor that the melodramatic score accompanying those opening credits seems recycled from any Hollywood thriller of the past few decades. What matters in the end is, as Lennon said, the power of imagination, the power to move beyond individual hatred and to see the one unifying globe before us.

Tough neighborhoods, hard times feed cycle of poverty

My Father, My Hero

There’s a framed glass poster that hangs on the wall of Assaf Ramon’s Houston bedroom wall. While the image of the smiling astronaut in the orange jumpsuit is famous, the Hebrew words inscribed at the bottom of the poster are not:

"Assaf, my oldest son, each night, look at the sky and feel me going about there. A bit far, but close. Close in my heart. I love you, my dear, and I miss you. Take care of yourself, of mother, and of your brothers. Dad."

"Dad," was Ilan Ramon, one of the seven astronauts killed Feb. 1, 2003, as the Columbia space shuttle re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and tore apart. Israel air force fighter pilot Col. Ilan Ramon inscribed those words on the poster to his eldest son the night before he left for Cape Canaveral. It was the last time his family saw him alive.

"In retrospect, I think that it was a goodbye letter," Assaf said. "That maybe it crossed his mind that something could happen to him. Because with the words ‘take care of your brothers,’ there is a transferring of responsibilities. On the other hand, even when he went to Florida for training, he would always say, ‘Take care of your brothers.’ Clearly, now, after the accident, the words have a different meaning for me."

As the oldest of four — Tal, 13; David, 10; and Noa, 6 — Assaf seems older than his 16 years. Well, almost 16. Ramon will turn 16 on Feb. 10, the day his father was supposed to be buried in Israel last year — until the family postponed it a day.

"It will take me a few years until I celebrate my birthday," Assaf said. "I don’t think I will be in the mood. Certainly not this year."

It’s been a tough year for the Ramon’s, who came to America for what went from a two-year stint to a six-year journey to support Ilan’s mission to become Israel’s first astronaut. It was a tough year for Assaf, a shy and disciplined boy, who spoke out for the first time, to Yedioth Aharonot, Israel’s daily newspaper, about his relationship with his father, about that terrible day and his feelings of his father’s legacy.

"I have no idea how my father will be remembered in history. Until now, I haven’t tried to think about it at all," Assaf said. "I assume he will be remembered as the first Israeli astronaut. As a man who was a pilot and fought for Israel. Maybe also as a man who wanted the world to live in love and peace. I don’t know. I think of him as a father, not as a history."

lan and Rona Ramon came to Houston with their four children in June 1998, after the Israeli air force commander decided that Ilan was the man for the prestigious mission.

About two months before the trip, the parents gathered the children for a conversation. Assaf was 10, in the fourth grade.

"Mom and dad called us downstairs to the living room," Assaf recalled. "We sat on the sofa and dad took out a picture of a space shuttle and said, ‘They want me to be on one of these shuttles, so I can fly to space.’ It was night, and we were little and tired, and we didn’t completely understand what he was talking about. So we said, ‘Wow!’ and we went to sleep."

"Dad said that we would move to Houston in the summer for two years, and I thought that it could be great," he continued. "I had never been outside Israel, and I thought it would be fun, a vacation of sorts. I never knew about NASA or about the shuttle. That was the first time that I heard of NASA."

At first, Assaf found it difficult to adjust, because he didn’t know English. "You came from Israel?" many students asked him. "So what are you doing here?"

Assaf explained to his classmates about his father’s mission and that the family was stationed there until it was completed. "They said, that’s nice, but they didn’t really get excited. Honestly, they would have been more excited if my father was a football player."

Actually, Assaf started to play football when he was in the seventh grade. "I didn’t want to play at first; I didn’t want to become part of the [American] culture," he said.

But it amused him how seriously Americans took their sport. "I remember that one of the games ended 48 to nothing, against us." As Assaf walked over to his father, he noticed people getting really upset; some were even crying. "The closer I get to my father, I see that he’s smiling. And then when I get to him, both of us burst out laughing. The Americans are crying, and the two Israelis are rolling in laughter."

America, in many ways, was good for the Ramon family.

"My whole childhood, my father had worked very hard. Here, there was this feeling of a new kind of life. Suddenly, he was home when I got back from school. In Israel, that never happened."

They took many family trips together, to Texas, Florida, Panama, Denver and Toronto. They skied in New Mexico and toured in the "most fun" place, Los Angeles.

"We all went to Universal Studios on Thanksgiving, and we got VIP passes." After the kids went on the rides, they went to look for their parents. "Suddenly, we see a crowd of people around them holding pictures of my father, and he is sitting at a table signing them. It was cool," Assaf recalled. "He looked like a celebrity."

lan Ramon’s fame began way before he came to America, with his participation in the mission to destroy Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in a preemptive raid in 1981. But Assaf and his siblings didn’t learn about that either until they were in America.

"About three years ago, he put in a video of the attack and showed us, ‘Hey, that’s me, and there is my plane. This is the target, and that’s the missile.’ And then he explained to us why they did the mission and why we can’t talk about it with anyone."

Assaf recalled that his father didn’t say too much, just that it was an important and dangerous mission. "Over time, after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the terror situation in Israel began to get out of control, I understood its importance."

Ilan Ramon never made a big deal of his accomplishments, his son said. "He never bragged … take the running for example. He would run like nine miles every time. On our last vacation together, at a cowboy ranch in Texas, I joined him. We ran about six miles, and then when we started going back to the ranch, dad continued straight on the road and said, ‘Go in, I’ll do another little loop,’ and he pushed himself to do another three miles. I was so done, having trouble breathing. It was only then that I understood how strong he was."

While his father was disciplined, disciplining at home was another story.

"We would all laugh at him when he tried to get angry," Assaf recalled with a smile. "It was ridiculous, because he didn’t get mad often. But when Tal and I would fight amongst ourselves, or when I did something stupid, then my father would get angry. He would yell, but it didn’t sound like he was really yelling. Then we would start to laugh, and he would break down and laugh."

Assaf saw in his father a confidante. "I would talk to him about everything. Even about girls."

When Assaf was in eighth grade, he started going out with a local Catholic girl named Kelly. "My father would give me advice what to buy her if she got mad at me. Once he even advised me to buy her underwear." Before the Columbia flight, Assaf’s relationship with Kelly started going down hill, and Ilan saw it was driving his son crazy.

"The last time I spoke to him, on videoconference from the space shuttle, we even talked about Kelly. He said, ‘This relationship is not good for you. End it.’ Even from the shuttle he had advice for me. I would say that he never gave me bad advice in the romance department. I know that I was lucky, because how many fathers tell their children to buy underwear for their girlfriends?"

OR THE RAMONS, two years here turned into five, with the Columbia missions continuously postponed. But in the winter of 2003, they started to prepare, and Ilan went on more and more training missions. He also started to bring home NASA experiments with him.

"He would come back with these containers of disgusting food they prepared at NASA — all kinds of dry steaks, repulsive pasta and vile vegetables — and he had to eat them and afterward bring the samples of … nu, what comes out from the food after its eaten?" Assaf said. "We would make fun of him when we were eating good food, and he had to open his containers to find an unpleasant surprise."

As the mission grew closer, Assaf said the family went about its business. "We didn’t have any fears. We really, really didn’t. We were totally confident and very happy. I asked him if this whole thing was dangerous. He said that people at NASA check everything they do three or four times, and they don’t take any risks. You could say that he was also very confident. He believed in NASA completely."

The last time Assaf saw his father in person, before he went into isolation for the mission, was on Jan. 9, 2003. "It was a regular day. I came home from school, did my homework, ate dinner with the whole family and dad organized our stuff. I came downstairs to talk to him a bit. Afterward he took these giant posters with his picture of him dressed in his orange space suit, put them on the bed, and he wrote something personal on the poster to each one of us. He gave me a small hug and gave me the poster."

After they said goodbye, Assaf went into the house and drank some water. "I didn’t cry, but I felt a bit choked up, like there was something caught in my throat. And then I said to myself, ‘Why am I getting worked up? I’ll see him again in less than a month.’"

few days before takeoff, the Ramons went to Cape Canaveral. "When you see the awesome power of the ship and the missiles around it, it’s a little scary. We all cried, a cry of happiness, because it was very moving. All in all, we had waited for this moment for five years. At takeoff, [my sister] Noa said, ‘I lost my father,’ and everyone talked about it afterward. I think it was just something she said, a little girl without any real meaning. She saw the smoke and the fire and apparently was afraid."

After takeoff, they went back to Houston, and gathered every day in front of the television to watch the NASA station. "In general, the experiments were somewhat boring, but it was moving to see the astronauts talking amongst themselves. On the videoconference, dad would do tricks with M&Ms," Assaf said.

Assaf admired his father’s decision to keep kosher and observe Shabbat in space. "Dad is not a religious man, but I think it was a nice decision that honors the entire Jewish people."

On Friday, Jan. 31, the day before the shuttle was scheduled to land, the Ramons returned to Cape Canaveral.

"We stayed at the hotel, we played soccer and tennis, we passed the time," Assaf said. After watching his father on the NASA channel, he was too excited to sleep. "That night, I saw how the shuttle was coming closer to Earth, and I thought that my father was inside, and pretty soon he would be here. It was clear to me that he was coming."

They got up the next morning at 7 a.m. and drove to the landing zone and went upstairs to watch.

"We waited and waited for the sonic boom. There was a clock running backward, and a man with a microphone speaking. I remember that five minutes before the landing, someone said that they lost contact with the shuttle. I said, ‘Big deal. Why do you need contact? They should just land the shuttle alone, and that’s all.’ It didn’t seem like they were worried."

"Three minutes before the clock got to zero, a sonic boom was supposed to sound, to indicate that the shuttle pierced the atmosphere. I’m looking at the clock, and I see it go down to a minute and to continue to tick away. And then I heard a noise."

Assaf can’t exactly explain the noise, but when he asked if it was the sonic boom, he was told that it wasn’t. "Meanwhile the clock had struck zero, and still they weren’t there."

"And then two minutes after zero they started to take us out; they took us back to headquarters. They just said: ‘Come with us.’"

"The NASA people didn’t look worried. But on the way to the car, I saw one of the friends of one of the astronauts crying. I said to myself, ‘What — is he stupid? What’s he crying about? What’s he all hysterical about?’ And in the car, I saw that my mother was also very sad and worried. I told her, ‘Don’t worry. Worst comes to worse, they’ll land at a different place.’"

"At that point, I really thought they were just going to land in a different place, and that’s why they were taking us to watch the landing on the video. But I think at that point, my mom understood that that was it. That it was over."

Assaf didn’t. He didn’t even consider the possibility of an accident at landing, because the only time he was worried was at takeoff, and that had passed — seemingly without a hitch.

The family drove five minutes to headquarters and went up in an elevator into a room with some families and a few senior astronauts and waited for about 20 minutes.

"Then someone from NASA entered, closed the door and introduced himself. He said, ‘This is the most difficult task I have ever had to do ever in my life.’"

"And I thought to myself, ‘It can’t be that they’ll tell me that my father was killed. It can’t be. It can’t be.’ But I was worried. And then he took a breath, and there was complete silence in the room. He said, ‘We lost contact with the shuttle over Texas. It disintegrated. There is not a great chance of finding survivors.’"

"I remember that I got angry, and I said again, ‘It can’t be.’ I didn’t believe it. And my leg started to tremble uncontrollably. I wasn’t ready to accept it."

"Some of the children started to cry hysterically at this point, and Tal and David came to sit with us. Mom was sitting next to me, and she had started to cry when the man entered. That’s why she didn’t hear exactly what he said. An astronaut sitting nearby repeated the NASA man’s words. That’s when I broke down."

That same day, the Ramons packed up and returned to Houston. "Later I saw on TV the footage of the shuttle exploding in the air," Assaf said. "And then I finally understood that dad is gone."

he extensive investigation of the Columbia disaster showed a long line of failures within NASA. The 248-page report concluded that the piece of debris that hit the shuttle’s left side on takeoff caused the shuttle to explode on reentry to Earth. The report also said that NASA had eight different opportunities to prevent the disaster.

"We read about all the chances that NASA had to deal with the mishaps, and they ignored it," Assaf said. "It doesn’t sound like NASA, and really lowers their image in my eyes. We always looked to NASA as a very secure place, and this report shows that they make a joke of the work."

"They saw the foam that hit the shuttle already on takeoff, and they could have said, ‘Something’s not right, go back and check it.’ I’m very disappointed, and I am sure that dad, as much as he loved NASA, would have viewed this whole thing from the outside and would have also been severely disappointed."

Despite everything, Assaf is not upset his father was an astronaut. "I am proud," he said. But he thinks about his father every day.

"I am trying to pass the time," he said. "You cannot avoid sadness. Every day I think about dad and the accident, and all the things that could have happened and didn’t. I don’t cry much, but sometimes I break down. It’s like a roller coaster: Some times there are better, happier days, and some times there are days that are not so pleasant."

But, he said, that the last year has matured him, that his father’s death has given him a new perspective on life, and he has learned not to take things for granted. "I look at my friends now, how they relate to their own parents. So if my friend yells at his mother or father, I get upset. They don’t understand it like I do. That it’s all temporary. "

ow, one year later, the Ramons are preparing to return to Israel. In August, they will go to a house that is being built for them in Ramat Chen. "I think it’s time," Assaf said, adding that he knows it will be hard at first, because he will feel like a new immigrant.

"On the other hand, my mother says that in Israel there is a better community. Here, sometimes, it’s boring for me. You need a car to go everywhere, and there is a certain age for drinking, and there’s also a lot of drugs among the kids. I am ready to live in Israel, again."

For his 16th birthday, a friend of Ilan’s gave Assaf flying lessons in a Cessna. Assaf is practicing to be a pilot in the Israeli air force, like his father.

"After the accident it came to me: I very much want to be an astronaut," Assaf said. "I want to share with him what he went through and to know how he felt. I believe that that’s how I’ll feel closer to him.

The 16-year-old, who has matured a lifetime in this last year, added: "Who knows, maybe one day [Israel] will send me."

For the Kids

One year ago, Kol Tikvah Religious School in Woodland Hills
started a letter-writing campaign to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. The students
sent letters to him wishing him well and telling him how proud they were of his
accomplishments, letting him know he was not only important to Israel, but to
American students as well. For the next year they followed Ramon’s progress,
and were waiting for his return — when he would visit California and Kol Tikvah.

When the students arrived at Kol Tikvah on Sunday, Feb. 2,
tears came to their eyes when they realized that Ilan Ramon, one of the seven
astronauts on the Columbia, wasn’t coming home. Karen Susman Waldman, director
of education, asked the students to write letters to Ilan Ramon’s family,
letting them know that their sadness is shared throughout the world.  

We Soared With Ilan

Yuval Rotem, Israeli consul general for the Western United
States, delivered these remarks at a Feb. 1 dinner for Pressman Academy,
honoring him and his wife, Miri, at the Airport Westin Hotel.

A verse in the Bible reads, “I am ready to stop, and my pain
is continually before me.”

Ladies and gentleman, it truly has become too hard for us
–for our people. This was supposed to have been an escape from the pain. An
escape from the fear and the anguish. An escape into space.

This was supposed to have been the dream of our entire
nation. A dream imagined 60 years ago by a young Jewish boy named Peter Ginz.
Trapped in Europe by the horrors of the Holocaust, Peter drew a picture that he
titled “Moon Landscape.” It was his vision of escape to another world.

Peter was not able to escape. He was killed at Auschwitz at
the age of 14. But his picture of the moon was found after the war. It did
escape. It went into space. It was carried there on Jan. 16, 2003, aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia by Col. Ilan Ramon, z”l.

My friends, Ilan Ramon was the true embodiment of the Jewish
people’s journey during the past century. His mother and grandmother survived
the Auschwitz death camp and made their way to Israel as immigrants.

His father, himself a refugee from Germany, became a soldier
in the Haganah, who fought for the independence of the newborn State of Israel.
Ilan himself was born in Israel. He was the ultimate representation of what an
Israeli is able to be: free and proud, strong, secure, confident and Jewish.

From fleeing persecution in Europe, to fighting for the
right to an independent homeland, to soaring into space: This was the story of
Ilan’s family. This is the story of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish

As Ilan himself once remarked:

“I’m kind of the proof for my parents and their generation
that whatever we’ve been fighting for in the last century is coming true. I
feel I’m representing the whole Jewish people.”

Ilan said that serving as Israel’s first astronaut was part
of a “miracle” that stretched back 50 years. Ilan Ramon was an important symbol
for Israel, but he was also far more. He was a brave defender of our skies, our
land and our people.

He displayed courage and fortitude in defending Israel in
his fighter plane during that moment of grave danger: the Yom Kippur War of
1973. He defended our nation against Syrian fighters in 1982.

And he also took part in another action of enormous
significance. An action that may have saved the people of Israel from untold
disaster, a feat that may have prevented the loss of hundreds of thousands of
lives, maybe millions, and not just Israeli lives.

In 1981, Ilan Ramon, piloting his F-16 fighter, took part in
the mission to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. At that
point in time, the reactor was preparing to develop enough enriched uranium to
build four or five Hiroshima-size bombs.

Imagine the debt of gratitude we all owe Ilan Ramon and his
fellow pilots for their successful mission…. Imagine where the world would be
today were Saddam Hussein to possess nuclear capability.

In the Book of Psalms, we perhaps can find a reference to
Ilan Ramon. It says: “His excellence is over Israel, and His strength is in the

Ilan is a hero of Israel. A tribute to the Jewish people. He
was among the most talented fighter pilots in the world. He was Israel’s first
astronaut. Most importantly, he was a loving husband and father — his dear
wife, Rona, and their four young children. We cannot comfort them. We can only
hope that they find comfort in each other as time goes on, and that they can
find a measure of peace and pride in the sacrifice of this noble soul.

We also extend our prayers to the families of the other
astronauts: commander Rick Husband; pilot Willie McCool; mission specialists
Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chala; and payload commander Mike
Anderson. May each of their memories be a blessing.

In his final mission aboard the space shuttle, Col. Ilan
Ramon lifted the spirits of our entire nation. We were moved to tears when Ilan
broadcast to our nation:

“I want to say that from here, in space, Israel looks like
it appears on the map — small, but beautiful. “

As Ilan soared, we soared with him. As he died, a part of
each of us died with him.

May he and his fellow astronauts now rest in peace. And may
Ilan, who protected us for so many years in this world, continue to protect us
from above.  

Israel Mourns

Even for Israelis hardened by years of dealing with
Palestinian terrorism, the death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon came as a
difficult blow.

The weather itself seemed to reflect the national mood: A
thick, mustard-colored fog blanketed Israel on Sunday afternoon, a day after
Ramon and six other NASA astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Columbia
broke into pieces as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.

Even in a nation used to trauma, the Columbia tragedy hit
especially close to home, said Naomi Baum, a psychologist at the Israel Center
for the Treatment of Psychotrauma.

“We identified with Ramon and his family, because we learned
so much about them in the past four years, and especially in the past two
weeks,” Baum said. “It hurt so much, because we developed an intimacy with him
and his family.”

“In many ways, the shuttle disaster and the loss of Ramon,
someone who represented so much of what was good about Israel, served to dredge
up a lot of the other trauma Israelis have gone through in the past few years,”
she added.

Ramon was Israel’s very own “right stuff” — Alan Shepard,
John Glenn and Yitzhak Rabin rolled into one. He was, many Israelis felt, the
best of the best: professional, brash, modest, handsome — and proud to be an
Israeli and a Jew.

“We felt he was our messenger to the great wide world,” Baum
said, “and now feel like a true friend and leader is lost.”

By Sunday, the hero’s welcome that Israel had planned for
its first astronaut had given way to mourning.

“Even for the world champions in watching disasters unfold
on television, this event was not quite like anything we know,” one commentator
wrote in the Ma’ariv newspaper.

Flags flew at half-staff and schools held special assemblies
to remember the 48-year-old Ramon. A memorial ceremony was held for the
astronaut at his former high school in Beersheba. Among those attending were
Ramon’s former classmates.

“Ilan was a hero, and yesterday afternoon he became a
legend,” former classmate Reuven Segev told current students at Mekif Gimel High

At Tel Aviv’s prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium, more than
1,000 teenagers attended a memorial service for Ramon. A hush fell over the
schoolyard as a student began to read from a poem Ramon’s wife, Rona, had sent
him while in orbit. The poem read:

“The last of my days is perhaps nigh/ Near is the day of
tears of separation/ But I will wait for thee till my life is extinguished, as
Rachel awaited her beloved.”

The students were captivated by the words, the drama and a
numbing pain with which they could all identify. The chatter picked up again,
until a husky voiced youth on stage began to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national

“Maybe we are cursed,” Eyal Oren, a 17-year-old student,
said afterward. “We can’t catch a break. Even the easy things are hard.”

Amid the tragedy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed that Israel’s
space aspirations were not over, saying, “The day will come when we will launch
more Israeli astronauts into space. I am sure that each and every one of them
will carry in his heart the memory of Ilan Ramon, a pioneer in Israeli space

Speaking at the start of Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon
also said the deaths of the Columbia astronauts Saturday morning were not in
vain. He extended condolences to the United States and the families of the
other six Columbia crew members.

Memorial books were opened for Ramon in Israeli consulates
around the world, an honor generally reserved only for heads of state.

After the Columbia disaster, President Bush phoned Sharon to
express condolences over the loss of Ramon, the father of four and a former air
force fighter pilot. Other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir
Putin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also expressed their
condolences to Sharon.

In Iraq, however, some felt the tragedy was divine justice.
Iraq’s official newspaper noted that one of the astronauts killed was a
“Zionist,” who had flown in Israel’s 1981 raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at

Car mechanic Mohammed Jaber Tamini in Iraq told news
agencies that Ramon’s death was retribution for his role in that raid. “Israel
launched an aggression on us when it raided our nuclear reactor without any
reason,” Tamini said. “Now time has come, and God has retaliated to their

The Jerusalem Post quoted some Palestinians offering similar

Security for the mission had been extremely tight, as officials
feared that terrorists might target the shuttle, because an Israeli was on
board. But officials were quick to rule out the possibility of terrorism in
Saturday’s tragedy.

Ramon’s participation in the 16-day scientific research
mission had been a boost for Israel’s national morale, which has been battered
by two years of Palestinian terrorism and a floundering economy.

“Ilan Ramon took the country to new heights,” said former
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was instrumental in arranging Ramon’s participation.

The launch was significant not just for Israel’s space
program but because the presence of Ramon, the child of a Holocaust survivor,
symbolized the Jewish people’s perseverance. Though secular, Ramon requested
kosher meals for the flight and took aboard a variety of ritual and symbolic

Among the items Ramon took into space was a tiny Torah
scroll that a 13-year-old boy received in Bergen-Belsen from the rabbi of
Amsterdam in order to study for his bar mitzvah. The boy, Yehoyahin Yosef, survived
the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel and went on to become a professor of
planetary physics — and was the person who oversaw the Israeli experiment on
board the shuttle to check the impact of dust on climate conditions.

Following the Columbia loss, the front pages of Israel’s
dailies had pictures of Ramon, looking straight at the camera, his hand raised
in a salute — or was it a farewell?

“Shards of the Dream” was the headline appearing in the
Israeli daily, Ma’ariv. The paper ran a full-page photo of burning debris from
Columbia streaming down to Earth. “Crying for Israel,” was Yediot Achronot’s

Ha’aretz commentator Ari Shavit described the pride Israelis
felt in sending “one of our own” into space, and the hope it gave the nation
that it could somehow “defy the gravity of its fate.” But he added, “That hope
keeps shattering.”

In an interview with Ma’ariv last month, Ramon minimized
fears about his safety, saying, “The chances an accident would happen in space
are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I’m not concerned at all.”

“In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else,” he
added. “The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup.”

Along with Ramon, the Columbia — which was on its 28th
mission — carried commander Rick Husband; pilot Willie McCool; mission
specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla; and payload commander
Mike Anderson.

When news of the disaster broke Saturday, members of Ramon’s
family, who were waiting at Cape Canaveral, were taken to a private location by
NASA officials. Members of the family who were still in Israel were flown to
the United States Saturday night.

Prior to their departure, they expressed disbelief over the
disaster. In an interview earlier Saturday, Ramon’s father, Eliezer Wolferman,
said he had exchanged e-mails with his son, and had last spoken to him via
video conferencing when he was still in Houston.

“It was very emotional,” Wolferman said. “Our family saw
him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air.”

Last Friday, Ramon sent his final e-mail to his wife. “Even
though everything here is amazing, I cannot wait until I can see you,” he
wrote, according to the Israeli daily, Yediot Achronot. “A big hug for you and
kisses to the kids.”

Rona Ramon told reporters Sunday outside her home in Houston
that her husband enjoyed every moment he was up in space. “He was with the
people he loved and in the place that he enjoyed so much,” she said.

She added that during the entire mission, she had no sense
of foreboding.

“The only thing that tears me apart now is that during the
liftoff, when we were all high, my youngest daughter yelled out, ‘I lost my
daddy.’ Apparently she was right.”

The Israel Defense Forces have set up an
e-mail address for the public to send condolence messages to Ramon’s family at

. p>

I Grieve for the Man Who’ll Never Return

His face peered out this week from every television set in
the United States. It was impossible to escape him. It was impossible to stop
looking at him. My heart ached, a real heartache. This time, I couldn’t stop
the tears.

Even I’m allowed. So what if I’m a cynical journalist who,
in a career spanning over 30 years, covered wars, earthquakes, terrorist
attacks and grieving families? I always tried to block emotions and hide behind
my mask of professionalism.

Last Saturday morning, the mask broke.

I stand next to the enormous landing strip at Cape Canaveral,
exactly three minutes before the anticipated landing, waiting to hear a pair of
sonic booms signifying the space shuttle Columbia’s landing approach.

Standing very near me are Rona and the children. I know
they’re there behind the wall, but I can’t see them. Since the Challenger
disaster in 1986, NASA makes sure to separate the families of the astronauts
from the journalists during takeoffs and landings in the event of a disaster.

When the huge NASA digital clock races toward the zero mark,
the anticipated landing time, I think of the nerve-wracking moments Rona and
the children must be going through in anticipation of their happy reunion with

They’re there, in the same VIP room through which they viewed
the launch 16 days ago. They held hands in excitement and roared as if they
wanted to help the shuttle gather energy to make it safely to space.

“I wasn’t scared even for a second. I knew everything would
be OK,” Rona told me an hour after the launch. “I know Ilan smiled happily in
the shuttle all the way to space, and I was happy with him for the realization
of his life’s dream.”

Only 5-year-old Noa shouted, “I lost my daddy,” during the
launch. During their last meeting, while hugging her father, Noa said that the
shuttle would explode, and Ilan reassured her with a smile: “That only happens
in movies.”

Noa was just an infant when Ilan arrived with his family in
the United States four and a half years ago. The family settled down in a house
in the town of Clearwater, Texas, and Ilan left for his new workplace at the Johnson
Space Center in Houston.

I soon flew to Houston to interview the first Israeli
astronaut for the daily newspaper, Ma’ariv. At our first meeting, I still saw
him as Col. Ramon, the legendary fighter pilot, secret bomber of the Osirak
nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, a brave pilot who risked his life in the Yom
Kippur War in 1973 and the Lebanon War in 1982.

During subsequent years of one-on-one interviews and many
more phone conversations, however, the boundary between the journalist and the
colonel fell. Behind the uniform I discovered a beautiful man, pleasant,
intelligent and brave. The kind you’d like your daughter to meet. The kind
you’d be proud to have as your friend.

Like everyone else, I wrote about Ramon’s biography: his
commitment to Shabbat and kashrut while on the space shuttle, and the personal
items he took with him to space — the little Holocaust Torah scroll, his
college pennant and a sketch of Earth as imagined by a teenage Holocaust

I flew back to Houston to interview Ilan several more times.
While doing so, I learned several fascinating things about the U.S. space
program, as well.

But even more importantly, I learned about the character of
Ilan Ramon: serious, intense, always prepared and organized, diligent about
doing his homework, never one to trust luck.

He arrived in Houston as an experienced fighter pilot, but
quickly learned that no one expected him to fly the shuttle and bomb the moon.
He needed to forget that, swallow his pride and work the many science
experiments assigned to him. Ilan studied his scientific missions seriously,
and especially took pride in those from his alma mater, Tel Aviv University.

Though he’d originally come to NASA as a payload specialist,
he was quickly transformed into an astronaut in every sense of the word,
familiar with all the systems and able to perform every possible mission. NASA
people couldn’t get enough of him. I couldn’t either.

I’d pestered Ilan more than once with the question that
bothered me most of all: If he was afraid of an accident occurring in space. At
first, he tried to explain to me that after his combat experience, including
two injuries, he wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. When I continued my
pestering, he merely smiled.

As the years went by, I learned what an optimist Ilan Ramon
was. Maybe the biggest optimist I’d ever met. Before going into space,
astronauts customarily prepare their wills. Ilan didn’t.

I asked him about everything. I even asked him about sex in
space. Ilan answered with a smile that there are only two things that aren’t
discussed at NASA — sex and death.

What’s the thing that scares him most of all? Disappointing
the scientists in whose name he’d gone out to space. “One wrong move on my
part could destroy an experiment 20 years in the making,” Ilan told me.

Very few journalists came to see the Columbia land on
Saturday morning. Only three Israeli journalists were there.

The launch was supposed to be the dangerous and exciting
part; the landing a matter of routine. But having accompanied Ilan for four and
a half years, I came to Cape Canaveral to close a personal circle with him.

At the communications center at the Kennedy Center, I follow
the astronauts on the closed-circuit television monitor making final
preparations. They are wearing their jumpsuits as Houston gives approval for
landing. “Go,” the cry of the NASA crew sounds. The time is 8:10 a.m.

We walk outside toward the landing strip. The weather is
great and the visibility perfect. It was supposed to be a good conclusion to a
perfect space mission.

I stand on the runway as the Columbia starts its approach to
Earth in the skies above Australia. The entrance into the atmosphere is over
Hawaii, the entrance to the continental United States is San Francisco Bay. It
was supposed to be a very quick and smooth flight from West Coast to East

At Cape Canaveral, the emergency and evacuation crews
deployed to the landing strip, including two portable labs for monitoring and
sterilizing the outer envelope of the shuttle from remnants of hazardous
materials. A military helicopter with a guard armed with a machine gun hovers
over the runway. Medical crews stand ready to attend to the astronauts
immediately upon their arrival.

Every few minutes, a Grumman G-2 jet plane flies over the
runway, its characteristics similar to that of the Columbia. It tests the wind
direction and the readiness of the landing strip.

Everything is ready for landing. Even the stairs are being
brought to the side of the landing strip for the astronauts to descend from the
parked shuttle.

On the runway, the digital NASA clock shows three minutes to
landing. I wait for those twin sonic booms and hear nothing. I wait to see the
shuttle glide toward the landing strip but see nothing.

The giant clock continues to race too quickly toward the
zero mark, and three NASA veterans look at each other apprehensively.

No one yells. No one cries. We just stand there, shocked and
hurting and realizing that something terrible has happened.

Through loudspeakers, the journalists are requested to
return to the bus for the short ride to the communications room. The large
clock is already showing a three-minute delay. It could happen in a regular
United or American Airlines commercial flight but not at NASA.

The Columbia isn’t late. She’s gone. Ilan Ramon won’t be
coming back.

He remains in the heavens.

Yitzhak Ben-Horin is the Washington correspondent for Ma’ariv newspaper.

Where No Israeli Has Gone Before

Ilan Ramon walks the pathways of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, slowed by the weight of the thick book under his arm. It’s the bible of the "magnificent seven" — the group of astronauts scheduled to blast off in the space shuttle Columbia Jan. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center. Among these elite seven, for the first time, will be an Israeli astronaut.

Ramon, 48, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), counts among his experience more than 4,000 hours in fighter jets. Following a decision by President Bill Clinton in 1995, the United States and Israel signed an agreement stipulating that an Israeli astronaut would fly on a U.S. space shuttle as a payload specialist, supervising an Israeli scientific experiment.

In 1997, Ramon, a Tel Aviv University alumnus, was selected. In July 1998, he reported for training at the Johnson Space Center, where he began to learn the skills he would need for the mission, which include supervision and operation of a multispectral camera for recording desert aerosol.

While aboard the shuttle, Ramon’s main responsibility will be supervising the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment (MEIDEX), whose conception, creation and operation were also by Tel Aviv University. The MEIDEX project is comprised of four experiments that will involve the participation of five of the seven astronauts on the mission, as well as a crew taking measurements simultaneously in a technologically retrofitted plane flown in the wake of the orbiter as it flies over the Mediterranean.

In an exclusive interview, Ramon said he understands the harsh realities involved in space voyage. It will be a tough expedition filled with hard work and a lot of responsibility.

The shuttle, despite its $2 billion price tag, offers few luxuries in orbit for the seven astronauts. They will be jammed in tight quarters for over two weeks, working 16 hours a day (or night) in a shuttle that will be orbiting 150 miles above Earth and circumnavigating the globe every 90 minutes at a speed of over 18,125 mph.

But Ramon does not fear the prospect of an accident in space.

"I have been in the business of flying for over 30 years," he said in his native Hebrew. "During my time in the Israeli Air Force, I lost many friends, most of them in accidents. The prospect of an accident in space is small."

But while chatting over a cup of coffee at the space center, where Ramon has been training tirelessly for the last four and a half years, he indicated that "in the first eight minutes after the launch, we will be sitting on a 4 million-liter [1.04 million-gallon] barrel of explosive fuel. We are talking about a consumption rate of 4,000 liters [1,040 gallons] per second."

Ramon is quiet, warm, businesslike and quick-witted. He demonstrates immense poise. Wearing a green shirt emblazoned with the NASA logo and that of his mission, STS-107, he sports a pin with the illustration of Columbia and the names of the crew, including himself.

In his childhood, Ramon never aspired to be an astronaut. Instead, he dreamed of becoming a pilot. After graduating from high school in 1972, he enlisted in the IAF, graduating in 1974 from flight school as a fighter pilot.

In 1980, as a member of the IAF’s first F-16 squadron, he attended the F-16 training course at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Ramon took a four-year sabbatical during the mid-1980s to study at Tel Aviv University, before returning to his military career. From 1988 to 1990, he served as a deputy squadron commander, and from 1990 to 1992, as an F-16 squadron commander.

Ramon is widely rumored to have flown in the 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. When asked by U.S. reporters about the raid, Ramon neither confirms nor denies his presumed participation. "Maybe I was there," he tells them with a smile, "maybe not."

In 1994, Ramon was promoted to the rank of colonel and assigned as head of the Department of Operational Requirement for Weapon Development and Acquisition. He stayed in the job until he received a telephone call from the IAF commander — it was an offer for him to become an astronaut.

"I have to consult my wife," Ramon said he told the commander.

But his commander knew that after more than 3,000 flight hours in the A-4, Mirage III-C and F-4 Phantom, and more than 1,000 hours in the F-16 Fighting Falcon, Ramon was ready for a new mission.

"After 30 years of flying and surviving two accidents, the fear is behind me," Ramon said.

Ramon and his wife, Rona, have four children, Asaf, 14; Tal, 12; Iftach, 9; and Noa, 5.

"They are going to watch the launch, and I want them to be prepared for the event," Ramon said.

Many of his family and friends will be at the Kennedy Space Center. Ramon refused to name names, but he hinted, "It’s like making a list of guests for your wedding. Lately, it seems that making the list takes more time than preparing for the mission."

But not everyone Ramon invited will be able to attend.

"[Former Israeli president] Ezer Weizman wrote me back that he is envious of me, but he is unable to come because of health problems," Ramon said. "I wish Ezer would come, not as a former president, but as one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force."

Ramon added that "more then anyone, I’ll miss my mom, Tonia. She is a survivor of Auschwitz and suffering from Alzheimer’s at an advanced stage."

Even though Weizman will not be at the launch, he and all of Israel will be with Ramon in spirit.

"Each astronaut is able to take 10 items on board. I’ll take the banner of the president of Israel and the logo of Tel Aviv University," Ramon said, referring to the university where he earned his bachelor of science degree in electronics and computer engineering in 1987.

Among other items, Ramon is taking aboard a painting from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. The painting, a depiction of Earth from a perspective on the moon, was the product of 14-year-old Holocaust victim Peter Gintz. Along with other young prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, Gintz published a secret bulletin in order to keep spirits up. He was eventually murdered at Auschwitz.

As for his personal items, Ramon will bring a brooch from his wife and watches from his father and children, a special mezuzah belonging to the Organization of Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles and a small Bible.

Ramon was reluctant to discuss the Bible, because he will do so in a live broadcast from space.

Despite the fact that he is not a religious man and does not keep kosher, Ramon believes that he bears responsibility to the Jewish people.

"I left Israel as a shaliach [a representative of Israel and the air force sent to the United States]. After more than four years of training in the United States and dozens of meetings in Jewish communities, I feel that I am now representing the Jewish people," said Ramon, who speaks fluent English.

"I asked NASA to look for kosher food, and they found a producer of kosher food in bags that keep the correct temperature for preservation in space. I am not going to eat pork or seafood, despite the fact that shrimp cocktail is the most popular food in space."

As for Shabbat, Ramon has rabbinic permission to continue work during the mission.

"During one event in Florida, I was approached by two rabbis," Ramon said. "They wanted to know when the Sabbath begins in orbit."

"I told them that we will orbit the Earth every 90 minutes, and every 45 minutes it changes from day to night, and therefore we are working according to Houston watch [time]," the astronaut said. "The rabbis told me that I am exempt from keeping the Sabbath, because of the need to use all the time there."

The Israeli astronaut is not the first Jew to fly in space. The honor goes to U.S. astronaut Judith Resnick, who flew on the maiden flight of the shuttle Discovery in August 1984. Resnick died in the January 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.

Discussing his time in space, Ramon said he will focus on the work he has to perform.

"The most important items are about 80 scientific experiments from all aspects of life," he said. "There is an experiment on prostate cancer that a Japanese American has been working on for the last 20 years. He believes that he can complete the experiment in space. Or another experiment on calcium bone loss."

"And of course," he continued, "the Tel Aviv University experiment to measure the composition of aerosols — dust particles suspended in the air — over the Mediterranean region and their effect on cloud formation, rain and changing atmospheric conditions. This part of MEIDEX will also help to gauge the reality and scope of global warming, because aerosol particles remain one of the major unresolved problems in the climate change question."

But Ramon promised not to forget to appreciate the unique moment.

"To feel the lack of weight, to levitate and to not forget to take a good look from the window to Earth. If I stay awake for 90 minutes after my shift, I’ll see the entire globe. That’s an experience of a lifetime."

Yitzhak Ben-Horin is Washington bureau chief of the Israeli daily newspaper, Ma’ariv.

Space Programs Thriving in Israel

The Israeli Post Office issued a stamp in December featuring the country’s first astronaut, who is scheduled to fly on NASA’s space shuttle in mid-January.

"Every time you are the first, it’s meaningful," said Col. Ilan Ramon. Israel will join an elite club of 30 nations that have sent at least one citizen into orbit aboard a U.S. shuttle or a Russian Soyuz capsule. The countries include Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Syria, Costa Rica, South Africa, Poland, Afghanistan and Cuba.

"It’s peculiar that it would have taken this long to fly an Israeli, given our strategic alliance with Israel," said John Pike of the Arlington, Va.-based research group, "I mean, we flew a Saudi almost 20 years ago."

Prince Sultan Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, flew as a guest on the space shuttle in June 1985, ostensibly to oversee the release of a Saudi-owned communications satellite. After the Challenger accident six months later, NASA banned nonastronauts — and commercial satellites — from the shuttles.

Israel has had a thriving, if low-key, space program for two decades. The Israel Space Agency was established in 1983 to nurture and oversee industrial and scientific programs that would pave the way for an indigenous space program.

Israel concentrated its efforts on developing a small, expendable launcher, which was based on its Jericho 2 medium-range ballistic missile, and pioneering a series of small but powerful remote sensing satellites.

The Shavit, which means "comet" in Hebrew, is a 59-foot-long, three-stage, solid-fuel rocket designed to carry payloads weighing about 700 pounds into orbits roughly 300 miles above Earth. To avoid dropping spent rocket segments on neighboring countries, Israel launches its spacecraft against the planet’s easterly rotational spin from a coastal launch site south of Tel Aviv.

The Shavit has a mixed track record, with two of six flights failing to deliver their payloads into the proper orbit.

Israel Aircraft Industries, which manufactures and operates the Shavit program for the Israel Space Agency, has formed partnerships to market commercial versions of the Shavit booster. Efforts have been hampered, however, by a worldwide glut of launch vehicles and a shortage of satellites to orbit.

"Work is proceeding, but slowly," said Rick Kelley of Orlando-based Coleman Aerospace.

Israel has had more success parlaying its small satellite programs into commercial venues. Israel Aircraft Industries’ Ofeq spacecraft, a remote sensing eye-in-the-sky used by the country’s military agencies, has a civilian cousin called the Earth Resources Observation Satellite (EROS).

Images from EROS-A, which was launched in 2000, are marketed by Cyprus-based ImageSat International, a subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries and Elbit Systems’ Elop division.

A more powerful spacecraft, EROS-B, is scheduled for launch in 2004. Israel plans to increase the constellation to eight spacecraft.

Israel also has developed a low-cost communications satellite called the Afro-Mediterranean Orbital System (AMOS). Built by Israel Aircraft Industries in partnership with Alcatel Espace of France and Daimler-Benz Aerospace of Germany, the first AMOS spacecraft was carried into orbit by a European Ariane 4 rocket in 1996. AMOS 2 is scheduled for launch in 2003.

The 2,000-pound AMOS spacecraft is Israel’s most successful commercial space product so far. China selected the Israeli satellite over European designs for up to 10 spacecraft purchased by Hong Kong Satellite Technology Group, which is owned by the Chinese government.

China wants the satellites, in part, to support television broadcasts of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and plans to launch the satellites on its Long March expendable boosters.

Ramon’s presence in space, however, is intended to highlight Israel’s well-established science and environmental research programs, not its commercial and military uses of space.

"Israel has a lot to offer," said Ramon, who will spend much of his 16 days in orbit operating an experiment that tracks dust particles in the atmosphere, in an attempt to learn how aerosols affect global weather patterns and rainfall.

Ramon also will oversee several experiments designed by schoolchildren from Australia, China, Japan, Israel and the United States.

"Science is done for humankind, wherever they are," Ramon said. "It’s every scientist’s obligation to share his findings, and this goes for every experiment that we are going to do during this mission."