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.