Photo courtesy of USAF/ Museum of Aviation.

A solar eclipse deserves a blessing

We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.

We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism.

An eclipse is, of course, a phenomenon entirely the product of natural forces. It depends primarily on a few basic facts. First, at present and on average, the Sun is about 400 times farther from the Earth than is the Moon and, in a grand coincidence, the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than that of the Moon. So, in general, the Moon now is just the right size at just the right distance to be able to block light from the disk of the Sun. Second, the orbit of the Moon is tilted slightly to that of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For there to be an eclipse, the Moon’s path must intersect with the Earth’s orbital (ecliptic) plane. Third, neither the orbit of the Earth around the Sun nor that of the Moon around the Earth is circular. Rather, both are elliptical. This means that one satellite or the other is sometimes closer and sometimes farther from the object around which it rotates.

Knowing the orbits of the Earth and Moon, astronomers can calculate when solar eclipses have occurred in the past and can predict when they will occur in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) has created a catalog of solar eclipses of all varieties reaching back four thousand years and looking ahead another millennia.

Though solar eclipses may be visible up to five times a year somewhere on Earth, they are still a relatively rare event at any particular place on the planet. The last total solar eclipse to be seen in the lower forty-eight states of the United States cast its shadow over several states in the northwest part of the country on February 26, 1979. The next one will be on August 21, 2017. It will be observable as a total eclipse in a path extending east and south from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. We won’t have to wait as long for the total solar eclipse that will follow. It will be visible from Texas to New England on April 8, 2024. The paths and dates for future total eclipses in the U.S. can be seen here.

Mentions of eclipses appear long ago in the early annals of human records. From Mesopotamia, for instance, we have references to the Ugarit Eclipse dated to 1375 BCE and the Assyrian Eclipse of 899 BCE.  In the East, in China, eclipses were described in writings from the Shang Dynasty and the Bamboo Annals regarding events in the fourteenth and ninth centuries BCE, respectively. Further west, in Greece, the epic poem Odyssey credited to Homer refers to the obliteration of the Sun and unlucky darkness, perhaps inspired by an actual eclipse in 1178 BCE. Later in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides and the poet Xenophon spoke of eclipses, generally in connection with military engagements. Indeed, the interval between lunar eclipses, known as the Saros cycle, was apparently recognized by astronomers in Chaldea (now southern Iraq) as far back as 800 BCE.

So, it is quite surprising that eclipses are not mentioned directly either in the Torah or the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which were written, edited and canonized in the first millennia BCE. Are eclipses not mentioned because they were unknown to the authors and editors or were they simply understood to be natural and not supernatural phenomena and, therefore, not worthy of mention?

The curious absence of any mention is highlighted, perhaps paradoxically, by two passages, in the Tanakh, one in the book of Joshua and the other in the book of Amos. According to the book of Joshua, during a battle between the Israelites and five Amorite kings at Gibeon, the Sun stood still for twenty-four hours, presumably to allow the Israelites to win. (See Josh. 10:1-15.) Recently, some Israeli scientists have advanced the idea that the author of Joshua was really referencing an eclipse on October 30, 1207 BCE. This seems more than a plausible stretch, though. Putting aside whatever evidence may or may not exist concerning the historicity of the battle itself, to sustain their argument, the scientists must first translate the Hebrew word “dom” not as it has traditionally been understood as describing the Sun becoming  still or stopping, but as the Sun having been merely clouded over or darkened. True, translations are often, subjective, but then the scientists must also essentially disregard the biblical claim that the event lasted an entire day, not the very few minutes that would mark the duration of a total solar eclipse. (See Josh. 10:12-15.) If the author of Joshua was trying to describe a rare solar eclipse, the author could easily enough have noted the growing darkness and the re-emergent light and cast the scene as an omen for Israelite victory. But the author made no mention of an eclipse’s effects or progression, and claimed an entire day of shining sun to be unique – which indeed it would have been.

In the book of Amos, the prophet was railing against those who would defraud consumers. (See Amos 8:4-10.) He said that God would not forget the miscreants’ misdeeds and that punishment would come by making the Sun set at noon and darkening the Earth on a sunny day. Again, some might argue this is a reference to an eclipse, but, here, too, the description is wrong and the rhetorical point seems to echo an earlier message about the “day of the Lord,” a time when Israel would be saved. (See Amos 5:18-20.)

The earliest clear references to eclipses from Jewish sources appear to be the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus, both of whom lived in the first century of the Common Era. In one work, Philo recognized eclipses as the “natural consequence” of rules governing the Sun and Moon, but also stated that they were “indications” of doom, such as the death of a king or destruction of a city. (See here.) In his treatise on the history of the Jews, Josephus mentioned an eclipse and did so as part of a story about Herod’s treatment of the high priest Matthias and Herod’s death. A reader could infer that the eclipse was an omen of Herod’s demise, but it was clear from Josephus’s account that Herod was quite sick anyway and had prepared his will in anticipation of his death. (See Antiquities 17, Ch. 6, Sec. 4.)

By the time the main text of the Babylonian Talmud was completed around the end of the fifth century of the Common Era, a negative view of a solar eclipse had clearly crystalized. In connection with a discussion of the view that rain on the festival holiday of Sukkot suggests heavenly displeasure, the rabbis engage in a series of analogies, including a discussion of eclipses. That discussion begins with the following proposition attributed to the Sages:  “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world.” (See BT Sukkah 29a.)

For those involved in this discussion, that idea only raises other questions.

  • Why is it a bad omen for the world? According to the Talmud, because the Jewish people calculate their calendar primarily based on lunar cycles and other nations base theirs on the solar cycle.
  • Can we be more specific about those at risk? The Talmud states that when the eclipse is in the eastern or the western sky, it is a bad omen for the residents of that area. When the Sun is eclipsed in the middle of the sky, the entire world is in danger.
  • And what is the signal that the eclipse is giving? The answer found in the Talmud is colorful, literally: “If during an eclipse, the visage of the Sun is red like blood, it is an omen that war is coming to the world. If the Sun is black like sackcloth made of dark goat hair, then arrows of hunger are coming, because hunger darkens peoples’ faces.”
  • But why would the Sun be eclipsed at any time? The Sages have answers here, too, in fact, multiple sets of them. In one view, the Sun is eclipsed on account of (1) a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized properly, (2) a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and no one was available to rescue her, (3) homosexuality, and (4) two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. Alternatively, the sun is eclipsed on account of (1) forgers of a fraudulent document intended to discredit others, (2) those who provide false testimony, (3) those who raise small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area, and (4) those who chop down good fruit producing trees.

As the recognition grew that solar eclipses were predictable events, part of the natural order, traditionalists tried to square the philosophical circle and reconcile the regularity of such events with presumably irregular eruptions of bad times and occasions of sins requiring divine intervention and punishment. (See, e.g., here and here.) According to one of his followers, because he understood an eclipse as a warning, as a time to take care, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1904) explained that eclipses were “meant to be opportunities for increasing prayer and introspection – as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, [and so] we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.”

This approach, however, is insufficient and unconvincing, regardless of the value of prayer and introspection. It fails to acknowledge the reality that science confirms about the regular order of local orbits. It fails to dispel expressly and strongly the general – but totally false -notion of a causal connection between natural events in the sky and human behavior on Earth. It fails to reject specifically the unsustainable rationales in the Talmudic passages cited above speculating why eclipses occur, and it fails to refute the false equivalencies among the various circumstances noted there.

This approach is also inconsistent with the traditional practice of offering blessings, as noted above, for more frequent, often more terrifying and clearly more dangerous events. After all, a total eclipse of the Sun is no less impressive than is lightening or an earthquake. And, further, this approach runs counter to the long standing tradition expressed in the Talmud (Menachot 43b) which calls on us to recite b’rakhot frequently during our waking hours, even to the extent of one-hundred a day. On the day of a solar eclipse, we should focus on ninety-nine other things and not note that the disk of the Sun is being obscured?

Even more importantly, the preclusion of a b’rakha regarding an eclipse undermines the emotional and intellectual benefit of a blessing, a principal purpose of which is to raise the level of consciousness of the person saying it. The words give literal expression to the remarkable thing or event which the individual’s senses have encountered or soon will. A blessing, then, is an empowering act, and to deny an individual, any individual, the opportunity to acknowledge, realize, concentrate, appreciate and grow can only limit a person’s mind and spirit, stunting his or her humanity.

With an orientation of modern, reality based Judaism, we can and should appreciate the order in the cosmos, especially the regularity of orbits. We can and should recognize the total dependence of all life as we know it on the energy that we receive from our local star. As the umbra approaches and recedes in a total solar eclipse, we can see the light change, sense the drop in temperature. Even as it compels us to look to the sky, that sight, that feeling should unite us, and draw our attention away, if just momentarily, from the troubles on Earth.

All of this elicits awe and gratitude, two primary bases for blessings. How appropriate then, as one looks (very carefully and with appropriate equipment) upward during a solar eclipse to acknowledge one’s awe and express one’s gratitude for having reached this season and being able to observe and to feel the works of creation. Here is one way:

     As the eclipse nears . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Source of Life that fashioned the stars, that sends forth heat from the Sun to warm us and light from the Sun to nourish the food we eat and provide the wonderful colors that so enrich our lives.

     When standing in the shadow . . . Modim Anakhnu Lakh – We are thankful for the opportunity to be reminded how fleeting and precious our time here is, how bound we are, one to the other, how much we should treasure the moments we have and the people with whom we share this most amazing planet.

      As light reemerges . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Sustainer of Life. May we be refreshed and renewed by the harmony of the spheres, and may our lives be worthy of the gift we have received and continue to receive through the arrangement of the cosmos.

     Your words may well be different. Write them. Share them. We do need blessings now.

  A version of this essay was published previously at

The 4 eras of John Glenn

John Glenn, the pioneer astronaut and former U.S. senator from Ohio, is gone.

He was of our parents’ era. For those of us of a certain age, Glenn was the first recognizable American hero. He was the first American to orbit the earth, and his re-entry was hair-raising. He returned, modest, unassuming, the only astronaut lacking a university degree, but clearly possessed of the right stuff well before Tom Wolfe’s overwrought book ground that term into the dust. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents describing him as aspirational, someone I should look up to.

Glenn, who died Thursday at 95, was also of another era. In 1962, months after that orbit, he testified in Congress against women serving as astronauts. Imagine anyone getting away with this today:

“I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” he said.

His heroism shone brightly enough that his testimony helped keep American women out of space for another two decades.

He was also of no one’s era. His closest friend was Henri Landwirth, a Holocaust survivor, and according to New York magazine, when he first saw the tattoo on his arm – Landwirth was in the habit of covering it up, even in hot weather – Glenn said, “I’d wear that number like a medal with a spotlight on it.” One hero to another.

Glenn was also irascible, liable to go his own way, and that ultimately scuttled whatever hopes he had of a presidential run. More than a decade before Oslo, he said the Palestine Liberation Organization should be at the negotiating table. The Democratic senator worried – aloud and to Jewish friends – in the early 1980s that Israel was drifting too far right, toward expansionism. There was no way he was going to attract the pro-Israel money necessary in that era to mount a credible White House drive; he would serve 25 years in the Senate.

And he could embrace a new era he did not foresee. In 1986, well more than two decades after he said women should not travel into space, he eulogized his fellow Ohioan, the first Jewish-American woman in space, Judith Resnick, who died in the Challenger explosion:

“As we reflect on Judy’s life, and the Challenger’s last voyage, I hope we never forget the last words that came from that crew. Those words were: ‘Go with throttle up.’ Those words are fare more than a courageous epitaph. They are America’s history and they are America’s destiny. And they will turn tragedy into triumph once again,” he said.

John Glenn, go with throttle up.

NASA: Mideast drought the worst in 900 years

 A recent 14-year dry spell in the Middle East was the worst drought in the past 900 years, according to a new NASA study.

The American space agency’s researchers examined records of rings of trees in several Mediterranean countries to determine patterns of dry and wet years across a span of nine centuries. In the study published this week, they concluded that the years from 1998 to 2012 were drier than any other period, and that the drought was likely caused by humans, the Associated Press reported.

The study’s lead author Ben Cook said the range of extreme weather events in the eastern Mediterranean has varied widely in the past nine centuries, but the past two decades stand out.

Israel also experienced a severe drought, but its effects were significantly dampened by its array of six desalination plants.

When the sixth plant in Ashdod goes into full production, Israel’s desalination plants will reach 600 million cubic meters of water — which is nearly 70 percent of Israel’s domestic water consumption. According to a government decision, by 2020 the desalination plants should reach a capacity of 750 million cubic meters.

Cook, the Nasa scientist, said the Middle East drought “falls outside the range of natural variability.”

Cook is a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City.

The researchers used records of tree rings in Northern Africa, Greece, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, and combined the data with records from Spain, southern France and Italy to examine patterns of drought across time in the region.

They studied rings of trees, both living and dead, that were sampled all over the region. Rings in the trunks of trees represent years. Thin rings indicate dry years; thick rings show years when water was abundant.

Cook said the research supported other studies indicating human causes of extreme climate events.

The water shortage was one of several contributing factors that worsened the situation in Syria in the lead-up to the outbreak of that country’s devastating civil war in 2011.

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.”

Scientists find evidence of recent water flows on Mars

Scientists analyzing data from a NASA spacecraft have found the first evidence that briny water flowed on the surface of Mars as recently as last summer, a paper published on Monday showed, raising the possibility that the planet could support life.

Although the source and the chemistry of the water is unknown, the discovery will change scientists' thinking about whether the planet that is most like Earth in the solar system could support present day microbial life.

“It suggests that it would be possible for life to be on Mars today,” John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administration for science, told reporters.

“Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past. Under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, the agency's director of planetary science.

The discovery was made when scientists developed a new technique to analyze chemical maps of the surface of Mars obtained by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

They found telltale fingerprints of salts that form only in the presence of water in narrow channels cut into cliff walls throughout the planet's equatorial region.

The slopes, first reported in 2011, appear during the warm summer months on Mars, then vanish when the temperatures drop. Scientists suspected the streaks, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSL, were cut by flowing water, but previously had been unable to make the measurements.

“I thought there was no hope,” Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology and lead author of a paper in this week's issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, told Reuters.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter makes its measurements during the hottest part of the Martian day, so scientists believed any traces of water, or fingerprints from hydrated minerals, would have evaporated.

Also, the chemical-sensing instrument on the orbiting spacecraft cannot home in on details as small as the narrow streaks, which typically are less than 16 feet (5 meters) wide.

But Ojha and colleagues created a computer program that could scrutinize individual pixels. That data was then correlated with high-resolution images of the streaks. Scientists concentrated on the widest streaks and came up with a 100 percent match between their locations and detections of hydrated salts.

The discovery “confirms that water is playing a role in these features,” said planetary scientist Alfred McEwen, with the University of Arizona. “We don't know that it's coming from the subsurface. It could come from the atmosphere.”

Whatever the water's source, the prospect of liquid water, even seasonally, raises the intriguing prospect that Mars, which is presumed to be a cold and dead planet, could support life today.

However, McEwen said much more information about the water's chemistry would be needed before scientists could make that assessment.

“It's not necessarily habitable just because it's water – at least to terrestrial organisms,” he said.

The evidence that there was water on the planet recently was the key finding in the study released on Monday. NASA's ongoing Mars rover Curiosity has already found evidence that Mars had all the ingredients and suitable habitats for microbial life to exist at some point in its past.

Scientists have been trying to figure out how it transformed from a warm, wet and likely Earth-like planet early in its history into the cold, dry desert that exists today.

Billions of years ago, Mars, which lacks a protective, global magnetic field, lost much of its atmosphere. Several initiatives are under way to determine how much of the planet's water was stripped away and how much remains locked in ice in underground reservoirs.

White House invites Texas student arrested over homemade clock

Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed who was taken away in handcuffs this week for bringing to his Dallas-area school a homemade clock that staff mistook for a bomb won a personal invitation from President Barack Obama on Wednesday to attend an astronomy night at the White House.

Mohamed, 14, was accused of making a hoax bomb, police in Irving said. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said he is Muslim and the case serves as an example of religious bigotry.

The bespectacled Mohamed is a ninth grader who was led away in handcuffs and a NASA T-shirt from MacArthur High School on Monday for making a project he put together to impress his new high school classmates and teachers.

On Wednesday, he became an Internet sensation.

“Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great,” a message on Obama's Twitter feed said.

The White House invited Mohamed to participate in its astronomy night next month with NASA astronauts and other young people, spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

“In this instance, it's clear that at least some of Ahmed's teachers failed him. That's too bad,” he said.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg also invited the teenager to drop by his California-based company.

“Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

The incident has launched a social media campaign called #IStandWithAhmed, which was the No. 1 trending topic in the United States on Twitter on Wednesday with about 600,000 tweets, many critical of the school district and police.

“My hobby is to invent stuff,” Mohamed told the Dallas Morning News in a video it posted online.

He told the newspaper he enjoys robotics and was looking to continue his interests as he started high school so he showed the clock, which had a digital display and a circuit board, to a teacher. The teacher notified officials.

“They took me to a room filled with five officers,” Mohamed told the Morning News.

A spokeswoman for the Irving Independent School District said at a news conference that school officials could not discuss the matter to protect the student's privacy. Police said no charges have been filed and they considered the case closed.

Mohamed was handcuffed and taken to a detention center where he was fingerprinted and had mug shots taken. He was freed when his parents came for him.

Mohamed has been suspended from school, the Morning News said.

Police said the device was in a case and could be mistaken for a bomb. Police spokesman James McLellan said Mohamed's religion had nothing to do with their response.

Two school police officers initially questioned the student and he told them he had built a clock. He did not offer further explanation, McLellan said.

“He didn't explain properly what it was and they felt compelled to arrest him,” McLellan said.

Last year was Earth’s hottest on record, U.S. scientists say

Last year was Earth's hottest on record in a new sign that people are disrupting the climate by burning fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases to the air, two U.S. government agencies said on Friday.

The White House said the studies, by the U.S. space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showed a need for action to reduce rising world emissions of greenhouse gases.

The data showed that the 10 warmest years since records began in the 19th century had occurred since 1997. Last year was warmest, ahead of 2010, 2005 and 1998. The records undercut arguments by climate skeptics that global warming has stopped in recent years.

The scientists said the record temperatures were spread around the globe, including most of Europe stretching into northern Africa, the western United States, far eastern Russia into western Alaska, parts of interior South America, parts of eastern and western coastal Australia and elsewhere.

“While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York.

“The data shows quite clearly that it's the greenhouse gas trends that are responsible for the majority of the trends,” he told reporters. Emissions were still rising “so we may anticipate further record highs in the years to come.”

U.N. studies show there already are more extremes of heat and rainfall and project more disruptions to food and water supplies and rising sea levels as ice melts from Greenland to Antarctica.


In December, about 200 governments will meet in Paris to try to reach a deal to limit global warming, shifting to renewable energies. China and the United States, the top emitters of greenhouse gases, say they are cooperating more to achieve an U.N. accord.

“We can't wait to take action,” a White House official said in a statement.

Opponents of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would take Canadian crude across the United States said the new data made it all the more pressing to prevent the construction of the pipeline.

But U.S. Senator James Inhofe, the Senate's leading climate change skeptic, said the difference between 2014 and 2010 was so insignificant as to prove there was no need for more stringent EPA regulations.

“Human activity is clearly not the driving cause for global warming, and is not leading our planet to the brink of devastation that many alarmists want us to believe,” he said.

In Britain, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey also said the records were “yet more evidence that we need to act urgently to prevent dangerous climate change.”

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it is at least 95 percent probable that human activities, rather than natural variations in the climate caused by factors such as sunspots, are to blame for rising temperatures.

Rowan Sutton, director of Climate Research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, said a single year did not mean much because it might be a freak hot year.

“But the fact that now 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century shows just how clear global warming has become,” he said.

Even so, temperatures since 1998, a warm year, have not risen as fast as they did in the 1980s or 1990s. The IPCC has described it as a hiatus in warming.


Since 1880, Earth's average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius), NASA said. The NASA and NOAA analyses showed that the world's oceans all warmed last year, offsetting somewhat more moderate temperatures over land.

The average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.24 degrees F (0.69 degrees C) above the 20th century average, NOAA said. Last year's warmth surpasses the previous records of 2005 and 2010 by 0.07 degree F (0.04 degree C), the scientists said.

The scientists noted that the record was set in a year that did not have the weather pattern known as El Niño that can heat up the atmosphere and has been a factor in many past record-setting years.

The United Nations says it is already clear that promises for emissions curbs at the Paris summit will be too weak to get on track for a U.N. goal of limiting global warming to 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) above pre-industrial times.

NASA’s unmanned Antares rocket explodes on launch

An unmanned Antares rocket exploded seconds after lift off from a commercial launch pad in Virginia on Tuesday, a NASA TV broadcast showed.

The 14-story rocket, built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp, bolted off its seaside launch pad at the Wallops Flight Facility at 6:22 p.m. EDT/2222 GMT. It exploded seconds later. The cause of the accident was not immediately available.

Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Sandra Maler

Outstanding Graduate: Joelle Milman — Transforming herself

When Joelle Milman was a high school sophomore, she met award-winning photographer Art Streiber, who has contributed to Vanity Fair among other high-profile publications.

It didn’t happen as you might expect. It was her work on display during an art show at the Annenberg Space for Photography, and he was the one who approached her — to offer a compliment on one of her photos.

“That was, like, the best moment ever,” said the 18-year-old recent graduate of the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School, where she majored in drama.

Committed to the arts, Milman has had several “best moments” during her four years in the magnet program. 

There was the time she was picked for a role in NASA’s “Space School Musical,” an educational “hip-hopera” series of videos about the planets, moon, asteroids and more, as a freshman. Or you could point to the school’s annual AIDS awareness play, which she wrote and produced this year. 

“I think that drama, when done right — which I think Hamilton is pretty good at — is something really transformative,” Milman said. “You can take someone and really make them feel something that that they never thought they would feel. As people in the world, we should try to make everyone see things different than they would usually feel.”

There have been some challenging moments along the way. After middle school, the Modern Orthodox teen left Shalhevet School because she knew she needed to break out of her comfort zone. She had been at a Jewish day school since kindergarten and entered into the new, unfamiliar world of a magnet music academy at a public high school. 

[Next Grad: Ruth Maouda]

“Me leaving Shalhevet just felt like the hugest thing in the entire world,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone could go through anything that different in terms of [a change from one school to the next].”

To her pleasant surprise, she made friends quickly. She credits the school — specifically, the mix of cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds within the student body — as contributing to her personal growth.

Milman excelled academically and plans to attend Barnard College in New York, where she is considering studying English and environmental policy. But she also found time to give back to her school and local communities, planning school fundraising events and mentoring struggling students while working with Jewish organizations. She volunteered at Friendship Circle Los Angeles working with children with special needs, assembled groceries for the poor with Tomchei Shabbos and manned a photo booth at a party for Chai Lifeline, which serves kids who have deadly illnesses. 

Her time at Hamilton has influenced how she views her religion, too, she said. 

“I think everyone should make a concentrated effort to be a diverse and well-rounded person, and I think that’s how I want my Modern Orthodoxy to be,” she said. “I think that’s really important.”

SpaceIL: Israel’s race to the moon

One day in 2015, a small Israeli spacecraft will land on and reconnoiter the moon, joining the United States and former Soviet Union in the world’s most exclusive extraterrestrial club.

That vision is not fantasy or chauvinistic braggadocio, but the sober prediction of Israel’s most experienced engineers and space scientists.

According to the leaders of the SpaceIL (for Israel) project, the unmanned micro-spaceship will pack more instrumentation into a smaller and lighter capsule than ever achieved before.

During a visit to Los Angeles in mid-February, Yariv Bash, founder and CEO of SpaceIL, and Ronna Rubinstein, the chief of staff, outlined the genesis, scope and anticipated impact of the moon mission.

In late 2010, Bash heard about the Google Lunar X competition, which offered awards up to $30 million for the first team to land a robotic craft on the moon that would perform several complex missions. For one, the craft had to move 500 meters (1,640 feet) from its landing site to explore the moon’s surface – or send out a search vehicle to do so – and beam high-definition videos back to earth.

Bash, an electronics and computer engineer, said that SpaceIL will traverse the distance in one spectacular jump. SpaceIL, by the way, is only an interim name and when the time comes will be replaced with an official designation.

Initial names suggested by the project staff include Golda, for the former Israeli prime minister, Ramon, for Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished in the Columbia shuttle disaster, and Hatikvah, Hebrew for “hope” and the title of the Israeli national anthem.

As soon as Bash absorbed the details of the Google competition, he posted one sentence on Facebook, asking, “Who is coming with me to the moon?” Among the first respondents was Rubinstein, a lawyer who now oversees the project’s organization, marketing and fundraising.

The total estimated cost for the project will be $30 million, of which $20 million has been raised so far, primarily from industry and private contributors. The Israeli government has allotted funds for 10 percent of the total cost, the maximum a government can put up under the contest rules.


Israeli President Shimon Peres visits SpaceIL. Photo courtesy SpaceIL

According to Israeli statistics, the government money will be well spent, since for every $1 invested in Israel’s 10 satellites and other high-tech research, $7 are returned in civilian and commercial applications.

The prize for the winning entry is $20 million, with another $10 million available in bonus prizes for accomplishing different aspects of the mission.

But it’s not the prize money that is driving the 11 full-time staff members and some 300 professionals who are volunteering their services evenings and weekends, after finishing their regular day jobs. In any case, any money won will go to schools to enhance math and technology programs.

“What counts for us is the impact the moon landing will have on Israelis and Jews around the world, to show what Israel is and what it can do,” Bash said.

Most important is to instill both pride and scientific curiosity in Israeli youngsters, Bash added. Together with the Weizmann Institute of Science, the project has launched a nationwide program of high school visits, which so far has involved 27,000 students.

Plans also call for lectures and exhibits in Diaspora communities, and Bash and Rubinstein will address a plenary session at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC during the first week of March.

Other key partners in the project are Israel Aerospace Industries, Tel Aviv University, Technion, Israeli Space Agency, Ramon Foundation and private companies like Rafael and Bezeq.

The Israeli spacecraft, whatever its final name, will compete against 24 other entries, of which 11 will be launched by various U.S. teams. Other competitors will come mainly from Europe and some from South American countries, but none from China, or, for that matter, Iran.

Early favorites are entries from the United States, Israel and Spain, Bash said.

Israel’s main strength, he noted, “lies in its nano-miniaturized technology, and SpaceIL will be the smallest craft ever sent into space.”

At liftoff, it will weigh 120 kilograms (264 pounds), but on landing, after burning off its fuel, it will weigh less than 40 kilograms (88 pounds). To get into orbit, SpaceIL will piggyback onto a commercial rocket, either American or Russian, at a cost of between $3 million to $5 million.

To Israelis watching the moon landing from 239,000 miles away, “it will be the most exciting reality show of all,” Bash hopes.

The impact on Israelis, especially young people, would be similar to that created in 1969 by astronaut Neil Armstrong as he descended from the Apollo spacecraft to the moon’s surface, proclaiming, “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Israeli supporters of SpaceIL already have their own inspirational motto, taken from Theodor Herzl’s words as he prophesized the future creation of a Jewish state.

“Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agada” – “If you will it, it is no dream.”

For additional information, visit

How to avoid meteors

NASA scientists “>tsimtsum, the Kabbalistic concept of a God who contracted from the world in order to create it; the “>told reporters why there had been no fatalities: “God directed danger away.” How grateful would he have been to that God if Chelyabinsk had looked more like Tunguska?  

But secularism sucks. It is hard to tell children that the universe is indifferent to them. It is unacceptable that chance changes everything all the time. It is difficult to tell ourselves the running story of our lives – to find meaning in our personal narratives – when the plot points come not from character or merit, but from rolls of the dice, bolts from the blue, madmen, freaks of nature, lousy luck.

There are of course rational ways to deal with this dilemma. We buckle up and drive defensively.  We buy insurance and earthquake kits. We exercise, wear sunscreen and eat kale.

There are spiritual ways, too – ones that don’t require twisting ourselves into theological pretzels. Knowing we may die tomorrow, we seize today, smell the roses, hug our children close. We count our blessings without positing a Blesser, thank our lucky stars without believing in fortune, fate or destiny.

Living well is the best revenge. I have friends whose toddler died suddenly of an undetected heart defect. “What do you do with that?” I asked the boy’s grieving father as, horrified, I fought thinking the unthinkable. “How do you go on? What do you learn? What do you do?” “Drink better wine,” he said.

There’s a poem by Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic: 

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.

We are sleepwalkers, amnesiacs, oblivious of everyday miracles, comically reliant on benign biopsies and Siberian meteors to remind us to be mindful.

We’re about to learn whether Hurricane Sandy decisively awakened us to our planet’s manmade mortality. ““>Climate Central” piece explained, “many scientists believe another mass extinction is under way – this one entirely of our own making.”

No one can avoid living where a chunk of space rock explodes with the force of 10 Hiroshima bombs. But the causes of climate change, unlike the contingencies of the interstellar cosmos, are within our control. There remains to us a small window of time when we can still bend the curve of global warming. It will be a manmade miracle if we don’t go back to sleep.

Marty Kaplan is the “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at

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.”

The shuttle, trees and social justice

Los Angeles accomplished quite a coup in beating out other cities to become the permanent home of the decommissioned space shuttle Endeavour. But in the wake of its dramatic arrival, Los Angeles residents and leaders still have a lot to learn about how to live together in a 21st century megalopolis.

In bringing Endeavour to Los Angeles, city leaders hope it will inspire generations to come to engage in learning about science. The fiasco of subverting proper environmental impact analyses and euphemistically classifying the shuttle transport as a house move may present the more valuable teaching moment. The damage done to neighborhood morale — not just as a result of removing hundreds of mature shade trees, but even more so the sense of exclusion and disrespect that the residents on Endeavour’s route to its new home feel — shows how much we could all benefit from greater knowledge of social, environmental and health science.

From the moment Los Angeles won the bid, the shuttle’s move in and around the city took on an almost deified importance. We were told the presence of this pristine national treasure would transform the economy, attracting millions of visitors to our city to get a chance to see it up close. Perhaps this is why, along with NASA’s prohibition, the idea of temporarily unbolting the wings and tiles to enable a less damaging move was deemed out of the question.

Perhaps it was this special aura of hyper-importance that caused officials to lose perspective and circumvent the law requiring an environmental impact analysis. The analysis would have revealed and quantified the extent of potential damage to the city’s overall health. Deep community engagement would have been required, and the depth of concern among people living in the affected communities couldn’t have been ignored.

Or perhaps it was an all-too-common failure to recognize the vital services trees provide, including their ability to instill a sense of place and identity in the people who rely on them.

Nonetheless, alarmed community members who attended public forums organized by California Science Center (CSC) alerted TreePeople to a rumored clear-cutting of the 7-mile, 400-tree living legacy to Dr. Martin Luther King in South Los Angeles. These Canary Island pines were planted by more than 3,000 people on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1990, and they have been watered, tended and protected by thousands more volunteers in organized events every month for 10 years. Each tree was named in memory of someone, and then adopted by a neighboring resident committed to its ongoing care.

Fearing the worst possible fate for these mature pines, I set up an emergency meeting with museum officials with the goal of protecting all the trees. They clarified that only 14 of the legacy trees were scheduled for removal, but I argued that none of them should be touched. I emphasized the extent of community ownership and physical and emotional investment embodied by these specific trees. This depth of engagement is why these trees are alive. Many have grown to 40 feet tall, and the green line they form through South L.A. is visible from space. This accomplishment is all the more extraordinary when we factor in that the average life span of an urban street tree in America is now only 6 years, according to U.S. Forest Service.

The 400 trees along other parts of the route were deemed by the Science Center’s arborists as weak, diseased, small or damaging to public infrastructure.  Most of those trees were targeted to be cut next year to make way for a new Metro Light-rail line, and Inglewood city officials wanted their trees removed so they could plant new ones that complied with their city tree plan.  TreePeople never supports cutting down viable trees, and with other groups joining the effort, confronted with a potential disaster of national proportions, I focused on saving the King Memorial trees.

With no immediate agreement to protect the trees and no voluntary follow-up by the CSC, I solicited an update from city staff much later in the process and was told they believed the King Boulevard memorial trees would be spared. For final reassurance, I contacted CSC senior advisor Steve Soboroff personally in August and communicated my shared concern and anger. He checked and confirmed that the trees were safe.

However, most of the other trees did not receive protection.

Public outcry grew as people learned their trees were coming down.  Realizing they had a rising crisis on their hands, CSC and city officials began meeting with community groups to find a solution. The resulting coordinated response from the community, the City and the CSC is something from which we Angelenos can take hope. Community leaders, including Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director of Community Health Councils, contacted TreePeople and North East Trees, seeking our guidance.  I advised them how to approach the situation to negotiate a far better mitigation to heal some of the wounds and better protect the health of people living in the affected neighborhoods.

A key to success was providing facts about that community’s vulnerability to the cumulative impact of environmental injustice. They very legitimately needed prompt replacement of the numerous health protective services that a multitude of large-canopy trees provide. Public-health scientists have mapped the occurrence of chronic disease in Los Angles and found the highest incidences of diabetes, morbid obesity and lung disease to correlate precisely with the neighborhoods with the lowest levels of tree canopy cover. The link is primarily socioeconomic, and the neighborhoods along Endeavour’s route are among those with the lowest tree canopy percentage in Los Angeles. With this new information, community health leaders were able to ask how long their people should have to live without the volume of oxygen, shade, air pollution particulate filtration, water quality protection, wildlife habitat, natural aromatherapy (from flower scents), and other services their trees had been providing.

As a result of this science-based case, the CSC agreed to a very generous package of mitigations.  Instead of two small trees for every one cut, they have committed to providing 4 very large new trees to replace each tree cut.  Instead of two years, they will fund five years of maintenance and devote half of the funding to train and employ local youths in the tree care. They are also providing a host of other benefits, including environmental educator training and sidewalk repairs.  Ultimately, everyone played well together and something great was achieved. 

Now, more work remains to be done to ensure the promises are met. The people in Inglewood should receive the same mitigation deal.  TreePeople is offering to continue to support and help train our partners there and the community health councils and their constituents to make sure they get the right mix of species to mitigate their problems. The tree palette must be assembled according to the needs of the people in the community, and that is why they have to stay involved. They deserve to lead the way. Their conversations with CSC and the Board of Public Works have been persuasive because they presented their case with scientific clarity. They can call authorities on attempts to circumvent the law. They can cite arborists’ corroboration of the health benefits of specific trees.

Environmental justice relies on an invisible foundation consisting of environmental and health literacy, and a community that is connected and communicating, that has  experienced its power to make a difference.  Perhaps this is Endeavour’s greatest legacy.

Gabby Giffords returns home to Tucson

Former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has moved home to Tucson.

Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, reportedly bought a home recently in Tucson and moved in on Sunday. She had spent the last year-and-a-half in Houston undergoing rehabilitation after being shot during a constituent event in Tucson in January 2011.

The Arizona Democrat resigned from Congress in January to concentrate on her rehabilitation. She will continue her therapy in Tucson, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

Kelly had been living in Houston, but has since retired from the NASA space agency.

Giffords, who is Jewish and a member of a local synagogue, was shot in the head at a Jan. 8, 2011 meet-the-constituents event outside a supermarket in Tucson. The gunman, Jared Loughner, killed six people. Giffords was among 14 people wounded.

Loughner last week changed his plea to guilty in the attack. The change reportedly was in exchange for a plea bargain that would send Loughner to prison for life.

He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia; Loughner was declared mentally competent to understand the charges against him.

NASA is her dream

When Barbara Schloss joined the robotics team at Milken Community High School as a sophomore, she knew she had found her passion.

“It’s so fun,” said Schloss, whose father and grandfather, both of whom work in the aeronautics industry, encouraged her interest in math and science from a young age.

Now that she’s about to graduate, she said, her dream is to continue exploring the fields of engineering and aerospace, eventually working at NASA. And if her time at Milken is any indication, she’s well on her way.

Schloss’ first year on the Milken robotics team was spent learning the ropes, she said. In her senior year, she served as the head of the team, overseeing working groups and leading her peers as they built what she described as the “best robot we’ve ever made” for their third year of participation in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.

Designed to pick up inflatable game pieces and place them on pegs, the robot also deployed a minibot that successfully climbed a pole. Schloss described how her team used pneumatics — “air-powered things,” she patiently explained — and mecanum drives, which are wheels that can move in all directions, to put together a final product that would wow the judges.

It wasn’t the first time she sought to shine a spotlight on the group’s capabilities. As a junior, Schloss turned her formidable energy toward marketing and outreach. She wanted to spread the word, she said, about how easy it can be to set up a robotics program — “NASA does a lot of funding and grants”  — and how much it can benefit students. Being part of the group didn’t just help her learn about building robots, she noted — it also taught her how to get people interested in something and recruit a team, as well as technical processes like Web site building, design and programming. 

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Schloss reached out to City Councilman Paul Koretz and asked him to visit.

“I spent a week and a half drafting an e-mail” to Koretz, she said. The councilman obliged, and came to the school to talk to her team and learn about what they do.

Schloss hopes he’ll be able to help other local schools follow Milken’s lead.

“Not many public schools in L.A. have robotics,” she said, “but it is a great program.”

In addition to her love of mechanics and engineering, Schloss is an accomplished tennis player. Having taken lessons at Beverly Hills Tennis for eight years, she made the Milken varsity girl’s tennis team as a sophomore and was a starting singles player. Her ease in moving between robotics and the tennis court is best described by the general manager of Beverly Hills Tennis, Hally Cohen, who writes in an e-mail about Schloss’ “ability to solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute and then in the same breath smack a forehand going 90 miles per hour.”

When asked about the Rubik’s Cube, Schloss laughed, affirming that she can indeed solve it in less than 60 seconds. “It’s just something to pass the time when you’re bored,” she said.

Next year, Schloss will head off to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she was accepted on early action and plans to continue her studies in aeronautics. She’ll leave behind her Milken community, and along with the robotics and tennis teams, she’ll say goodbye to the Traditional Students Club, which she started in order to get to know other Modern Orthodox kids at the school.

But Schloss knows she’s on her way to a place where she’ll have no trouble fitting in.

“I visited the campus and met all these amazing people,” she said of her future alma mater. “Even when I got into other schools, I just realized that MIT is it; that’s the place for me.”

Israeli invention could pave way for hydrogen cars

Everyone’s heard that old story about the scientist who invents a “magic pill” that turns water into gasoline — with the invention eventually getting into the hands of the oil companies that bury it, fearing they will be driven out of business when word gets out about their competition.

It sounds like science fiction, but believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened to Moshe Stern, head of C.En (Clean Energy), who said his company’s scientists have developed a revolutionary breakthrough that will enable automobile manufacturers to produce — and sell — cars that use hydrogen power. It’s a breakthrough that has been getting a lot of attention — and oil companies got wind of it, too, with one company allegedly offering him $50 million to shelve his project.

Stern didn’t take the money, though; he intends to see his hydrogen car project through. As a result, he said, for the first time the West has an opportunity to make a real dent in its dependence on OPEC oil.

Hydrogen has long been the great green hope for governments and environmentalists, as well as the ideal opportunity to lessen oil imports for Western countries — since hydrogen can be manufactured from water.

President Bush has set aside billions for development of the technology, and hydrogen is the preferred alternative fuel for public vehicles, like buses, in many cities. Among the cities with at least some public buses fueled by hydrogen are London; Reykjavik, Iceland; Perth, Australia, and Santa Monica — where nearly three-quarters of all municipal vehicles of all types are powered by the fuel.

Instead of producing carbon monoxide or other harmful pollutants, hydrogen fuel emits water vapor, which is certainly better for the environment than fossil fuel emissions — even though some scientists believe it should be considered a greenhouse gas.

Lower pollution and less money for OPEC — hydrogen sounds tailo rmade for the fuel problems that ail us. While Bill Gates of Microsoft fame may have been right when he said, “If GM kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles per gallon,” the fact is that the industry says that hydrogen is still not ready for prime time.

While producing the hydrogen is easy enough, getting the fuel into the car and storing it in a fuel tank are some of the biggest obstacles for the technology. This, industry experts say, has traditionally been the deal-breaker for increased hydrogen use.

Most hydrogen vehicles on the road use a liquid form of the material, which requires a super strong and super heavy storage tank. Liquid hydrogen is unstable and needs to be insulated from the excess shocks of bumps and potholes that are a part of everyday driving, so the tanks themselves are large and heavy, and hold about five gallons of fuel — enough for barely 160 miles of driving.

Then there’s the issue of integrating the fuel into internal combustion vehicles that, for better or worse, are unlikely to be phased out anytime soon — as well as the question of where drivers are supposed to fill up, because hydrogen stations are rare.

All these are legitimate concerns that have kept hydrogen development restricted more or less to the laboratory, Stern said, and all concerns that are addressed and solved with C.En’s hydrogen storage and supply solution.

The difference? C.En’s tank uses hydrogen gas collected from the environment (i.e., not produced from fossil fuels) and enclosed in a thin but leak-proof glass container. The best part: Drivers will be able to buy “gas” at automotive or discount stores, fueling up approximately every 370 miles.

Stern said they can build a 16-gallon tank that weighs no more than 100 pounds,unlike tanks currently used for liquid hydrogen that weigh several hundred pounds.

“Our company’s breakthrough is in accumulating hydrogen in a glass material that is very small, only a few microns,” said Stern, who is also president of Environmental Energy Resources (EER), a waste treatment company. “You don’t need to transport hydrogen to fuel stations, and you don’t need pipelines. The tanks will be like a battery that can be replaced, and you can carry a reserve in the car.”

When you run out of hydrogen in one tank, according to Stern, you just pull out the empty cell and put in the fresh one, which will be good for another 370 miles.

The cells, in fact, will act just like batteries in electric or hybrid cars and fit right in with the standard internal combustion engine — which means that Detroit or Japan don’t have to retool their factories or production lines to build cars with the capacity for hydrogen cells. The know-how and means of production are in use right now, in fact, as almost every car manufacturer is already producing hybrids or straight electric cars.

George Sverdrup, technology manager for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s hydrogen, fuel cells and infrastructure technologies program, said that once the storage problem is solved, there is no reason hydrogen cannot be used as the premiere fuel to power cars.

“We can use hydrogen to decrease our dependence on imported petroleum, because it can be produced by a variety of domestic resources, including water and biomass,” he said, adding that his group has made a great deal of progress in recent years figuring out ways to store hydrogen more safely — a problem solved by C.En’s invention.

Stern is coordinator of the project and chief investor. Among the others are Israeli, as well as Korean, Japanese and Russian investors. The head researcher is professor Dan Eliezer of Ben-Gurion University, an expert in hydrogen who has done work for NASA and security organizations in Israel and the United States.

The team has conducted more than 100 tests over the past several years and is going to be conducting field tests in Germany, where the company will seek approval by BAM (the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing).

‘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

Q-and-A with Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy — best known as “Star Trek's” logical Mr. Spock — wants the Griffith Observatory to go where no observatory has gone before. So he became one of the staunchest advocates of the landmark's mammoth renovation and expansion project, along with his wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, donating $1 million toward its new Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater. The auditorium, housed in a circular drum clad in perforated metal panels, is so elegantly futuristic it could serve as a set for the planned “Star Trek XI” film, which will not involve Nimoy.

The 75-year-old actor-director, who helmed two of the “Star Trek” films, has left filmmaking and fictional space travel behind to focus on philanthropy and photography. Last Friday, he was busy preparing for his latest exhibition, “The Photography of Leonard Nimoy,” at the Archer Gallery in Brentwood. But he set aside time to talk with The Journal about the observatory, where he hopes visitors will learn more about what “Trek” dubbed the “final frontier.”

Jewish Journal: How did you get involved with the Griffith project?

Leonard Nimoy: About five years ago, my wife, Susan, got up one morning and read a piece in the Los Angeles Times about how the observatory was shutting down for renovations, and that they needed funds. We immediately contacted the key people and learned about their plans and hopes and dreams. One thing we discovered was that while the Griffith has had a Planetarium where you could see laser shows, they've never had a theater for presenting films, lectures and the exchange of ideas. I was drawn to the theater because of the obvious connections: I explored the stars, the planets and the galaxies on “Star Trek,” and I got my professional start in the theater.

JJ: Specifically, the Yiddish theater.

LN: My parents were immigrants from the shtetl, so I grew up speaking Yiddish and was able to perform with visiting theater troupes in L.A. as a young man.

JJ: It wasn't until you were in your 30s that you got your big break playing the Vulcan Spock on “Star Trek.” Which came first, your association with science fiction or your interest in science?

LN: Actually I've been interested in physics and mechanical issues since I was a child in Boston, where I attended science programs at the neighborhood settlement house [an institution that helped poor immigrants and their families]. Also, one of the first movies I ever did was a [1952] science fiction film called “Zombies of the Stratosphere” — how's that for starters (he laughs)?

JJ: What did you play?

LN: A zombie, of course.

JJ: Your character intended to build an H-bomb to blast the earth out of its orbit. I remember a giant green poster from that movie in your den, across from the last pair of pointy Vulcan ears you wore on the “Star Trek” TV series.

LN: Both are still there. But of course it was “Star Trek” that introduced me to a host of information about outer space, some of it speculative, some of it real. “Warp drive” was a riff on Einstein's Theory of Relativity [where you could travel vast distances if you surpassed the speed of light].

JJ: In astronomy, an event horizon is the gravity field of a black hole where light cannot escape. I trust that visitors will have no trouble exiting the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater?

LN: For us, “event” horizon is meant to indicate a place where things happen — anything from movies to live downloads of outer space experiences to NASA projects in progress. The very first film that will show there is a documentary about the Griffith's renovation, which I narrated.

JJ: As a philanthropist, you've endowed projects as diverse as a concert series at Temple Israel of Hollywood to artist's fellowships at museums throughout the country. In the past you've given anonymously, but recently you've allowed your name to be associated with some gifts.

LN: In Judaism, there is a philosophical understanding that the highest form of charity is that which is given anonymously. The reason is that when you give to an individual, that person could feel an obligation to you if he knows whom you are. [Today,] when Susan and I give publicly to an institution, we do so in the hope that it will encourage others to do the same, so there's the difference.

JJ: Susan told a Canadian newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, that when you announced the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, the observatory's phone “rang off the hook with all these 'Star Trek' fans. They gave money like mad.

LN: That's exactly what we had hoped would happen…. Our gift-giving comes from a very Jewish place. It's the belief that the exploration of ideas is vital to the expansion of the human consciousness of who we are, and what we're on earth to do, which I strongly believe is tikkun olam the healing of the world.

JJ: That sounds a lot like the outlook expressed by the fictional characters of “Star Trek's” USS Enterprise, although they'd perhaps call it the “healing of the universe.” So what would Spock think of Griffith's grand re-opening?

LN: He would think it was a very logical event taking place here. Very logical.

Jews join the quest for space commerce

In the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a commercial Pan Am Space Clipper flight carries civilians to the wheel-shaped Space Station V, which features a Hilton Hotel and a Howard Johnson’s. Naturally, the calls to Earth via videophone are handled by AT&T’s forerunner Bell, and the charges for the call go on American Express.

While the film’s rampant commercialism was more social commentary than foresight, recent technological advances have boosted private enterprise into a field once considered government’s exclusive domain.

Commercial space interests are now playing a critical role in the dawn of the second space age — one built on business ventures and international cooperation. Instead of Hilton and Pan Am, the corporate names associated with the commercialization of space include Budget Suites and Virgin.

A new space race by corporate interests is being fueled by the dreams — and wallets — of prosperous entrepreneurs. Their investments are leading to the kind of technological developments that seemed like science fiction a decade ago. And Jews are represented in all aspects of the field, from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to former NASA director turned consultant Dan Goldin.
“It’s at every level. You see Jews in leadership positions as well as rank-and-file engineers and lawyers,” said Mike Gold, a Brandeis graduate who serves as corporate counsel for Bigelow Aerospace, a commercial spacecraft and space habitat company founded by Budget Suites mogul Robert Bigelow. “It’s part of the dream that a lot of people share.”

The tantalizing prospect of manned space travel was first realized by Yuri Gagarin’s flight aboard the Soviet-made Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, which was followed by the U.S. team of Alan Shepard and John Glenn in NASA’s Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962.
Immediately after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1968, air carriers Pan Am and TWA started taking reservations for future flights to the moon; Pan Am logged more than 90,000 reservations.

The Reagan administration provided the legal framework for private space travel in 1984 with the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Act. Under government regulations, the FAA’s Office for Commercial Space Transportation oversees private space launches, while the Office of Space Commercialization, part of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service, coordinates space-related issues, programs and initiatives within the Department of Commerce.

But space tourism continued to be viewed as the stuff of “2001” until former JPL scientist Dennis Tito paid $20 million to U.S.-based Space Adventures to visit the International Space Station on April 28, 2001, with the assistance of Russia’s federal space agency. His seven-day space holiday, and that of three other space tourists, has brought the dream of civilian space flight another step closer.

But the reality on the ground is that the industry carries tremendous pressures, especially to build successful business strategies that don’t rely on a few wealthy entrepreneurs’ bank accounts.

“One of the reasons why there hasn’t been a lot of truly commercial ventures in the space industry to date are the large upfront capital requirements,” said Lawrence Williams, vice president for international and government affairs at SpaceX, who is Jewish and came to the industry through communications work for the Clinton administration and Bill Gates’ satellite project Teledesics. “That’s why typically it’s only been governments that have been involved in this.”

The first private space flight took place on June 21, 2004, when the commercial suborbital craft, SpaceShipOne, reached a point more than 100 kilometers above the earth. The estimated $25 million cost of developing SpaceShipOne, which was built by Scaled Composites and went on to capture the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, was underwritten exclusively by Microsoft’s Allen.
His Mojave Aerospace is now licensing the technology to VirginGalactic, which plans to send up 500 people annually on a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo ships starting in 2008. The reservation list currently stands at about 65,000 people, with suborbital trips costing $208,000 per passenger.

Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, Space Island Group and Bigelow Aerospace know that establishing a profitable presence in space must be based on more than just enabling passengers to experience seven minutes of weightlessness or allowing private citizens to live aboard an orbiting space hotel for a week. Industry experts say the only proven revenue stream thus far has been satellite development and satellite launches.

Alon Gany, head of the Fine Rocket Propulsion Center at Technion–Israel’s Institute of Technology, said that space investment from Israel’s private sector is tied almost exclusively to satellite technologies.

“One of the main efforts is the improvement of communication satellites. The other thing is developing specific components that are necessary for advanced satellites, like high-resolution cameras and cameras in different wavelengths, like infrared,” he said.
Risk-averse firms are looking to opportunities that can turn a profit — from satellites launches and NASA supply contracts to unique research and development in a zero-gravity environment.

“There’s all sorts of new drug treatments and biotech development that you can do in microgravity that you can’t do on Earth. It’s like opening up a whole new laboratory where all the rules are different because everything reacts differently,” Bigelow Aerospace counsel Gold said.

Gold, 33, said his work for Bigelow Aerospace is the fulfillment of a longstanding dream fed by the first space age.

“I grew up a ‘Star Trek’ fan, my grandfather worked on the Apollo missions, and I always had a huge interest in space.

Unfortunately, my interest was directly proportional to my lack of skill in the sciences, which is why I had to find my way to it via law,” he said.

Gold says that while space travel carries inherent dangers, private industry stands to lose more from a catastrophic loss than the federal government.

“Even without government regulation, we’re already highly incentivized. If we want to have industry here, customers and participants need to have a safe, reliable and affordable system in place,” he said.

As private industry prepares to stake claims in space following government’s Lewis-and-Clark-like exploration of the final frontier, many experts believe that a side benefit of putting more civilians in orbit will be a greater push for peace on Earth, especially in hot spots like the Middle East.

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."

Community Briefs

A Call for Passion

Young Jewish professionals will gather Jan. 25 in downtown Los Angeles at a Jewish Federation-allied conference emphasizing increased activism in Southern California’s problems and politics.

“It was a very intentional, narrow focus on people who are engaged in the city, in the civic life of the city,” said Andrew A. Cushnir, co-coordinator of the conference.

“The Return to Passion: A Call to Action” will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

“There were times when the Jewish community was more passionately involved in civic affairs,” said Cushnir, a Federation fundraising executive. “Young leaders are equally passionate, but they haven’t been able to find the vehicles to express their voice.”

Organizers expect about 200 at the conference, the latest work of the New Leaders Project (NLP), an adjunct program with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Prior NLP activities have included mural projects and cross-cultural contacts, but this year’s 23 NLP participants created the conference as their major activity. The event includes a panel discussion with five Jewish leaders in environmental, after-school, job-training and other nonprofit ventures.

“It’s about action; it’s about getting accomplished people who are behind civic activism — who they are, how they got to be leaders,” said political consultant Donna Bojarsky, NLP co-chair with Richard Volpert. “It’s people who have made things happen.”

With money from the Jewish Community Foundation and Saban Family Foundation, conference sessions will address issues such as education, civil rights, race relations, transportation and land use. Seminars will include “Making Your Passion a Reality,” “Jewish Ethical Values in the Halls of Power” and “The Future of Jewish Political Power.”

Panel speakers will include Bojarsky, Democratic political consultant Steve Barkan, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Bruce Bialosky and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, plus Los Angeles City Councilmembers Wendy Greuel, Alex Padilla, Antonio Villaraigosa and Jack Weiss.

Clergy participants will include Conservative Rabbi Elliott Dorff of the University of Judaism; Reform Rabbi Harvey Fields, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and Conservative Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom. Academics will include Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson and USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky.

For more information, e-mail , or call (323) 761-8160. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Six File New Holocaust InsuranceSuits

Six more Holocaust survivors in California have joined a growing list of plaintiffs who charge that a large Italian life insurance company has reneged on payments for policies taken out before World War II by parents and relatives who perished in Nazi concentration camps.

In their lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court, the survivors claim that Assicurazioni Generali, one of Europe’s largest insurers, has stonewalled their requests for payouts for up to 55 years or fobbed them off with meager settlement offers.

One plaintiff is Manny Steinberg, 78, of West Hills, who was a 14-year-old in Radom, Poland, when he was assigned to a munitions factory for forced labor. Later he survived a death march, Auschwitz and a Dachau satellite camp. His mother and a brother perished in the Holocaust, while his father and another brother survived.

“I still remember when I was a young child the Generali agent coming to my father’s ladies custom tailoring store every two weeks to collect $2 or $3 in insurance premiums,” Steinberg said. “And while we were in camp, my father kept reminding me, ‘If we get out, there is an insurance policy waiting.'”

After six years of correspondence, Generali informed Steinberg that it is still auditing his records. Generali told survivors George Brown of Tarzana and Ebi Gabor of West Hills that it could not find any records of policies purchased by their parents. Also participating in the suit are Jean Greenstein, Tarzana; Alexander Nasch, Los Angeles; and Lillian Schaechner, Oakland.

The six survivors are seeking damages and an injunction against Generali’s allegedly unfair business practices. They are represented by attorney William Shernoff, who over the last three years has filed similar suits on behalf of 12 other survivor families.

All the cases, as well as a number of class-action suits on Holocaust reparations, have been transferred to a federal court in New York, where they are under review. Shernoff expects that the current litigation will also be moved to the New York court.

Complicating the matter is that all insurance claims against Generali and other European insurance companies have been assigned to the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Peter Simshauser, Generali’s attorney in Los Angeles, said the company had paid $100 million to ICHEIC for its operations and to settle insurance claims against Generali.

“Some individual claimants have received in excess of $500,000,” Simshauser said.

He also pointed to a letter sent last week by Generali Director General Meir Lantzman to Israel’s Knesset, which stated that the company had paid $45.5 million to 2,751 individuals.

Shernoff said that the current value of policies held by survivors and heirs of Holocaust victims totals more than $1 billion. “It’s a joke,” Shernoff said. “Generali is paying out less than 10 cents on the dollar.”

The ICHEIC has been under heavy criticism by survivor organizations, state insurance directors and some congressmen. It has been accused of foot-dragging and bureaucratic red tape.

Last September, three Los Angeles-area survivors, including Steinberg, filed a suit against ICHEIC, claiming that it served as a front for Generali.

The deadline for submitting claims to ICHEIC expired Dec. 31. In filing the latest suit against Generali after the deadline, Shernoff said he wanted to make it clear that those who had not yet sent in a claim or believed that they had been given the runaround by ICHEIC or Generali could still stake their claims through lawsuits. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Mars Mission’s Technion Triumph

As NASA celebrates the success of the Mars rover, Spirit, Israel is taking pride in its own high-tech contribution to the mission. Three Israelis who worked at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto co-developed an algorithm that allows photos and scientific data to be sent back to Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with startling clarity, accuracy and cost-efficiency.

The developers, all who graduated from Technion University in Haifa, were able to create a basis for state-of-the-art data compression systems that was less complex than anything else available. “That makes it extremely cheap to implement,” said Guillermo Sapiro, a co-developer who now works as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Sapiro, Gadiel Seroussi and Marcelo Weinberg — each emigrates to Israel from Uruguay — completed the algorithm, LOCO-I (Low Complexity Lossless Compression for Images), in 1999. It ensures that information can be sent from Mars, currently 106 million miles from Earth, with minimal or no data loss.

It functions much the same way Zip applications do for Windows on PCs or StuffIt does on a Macintosh computer. Compressing the data makes the file’s overall size smaller, thus cutting down the time it takes to download it from Spirit.

By using compression based on LOCO-I as one of two modes of data retrieval, NASA is able to use smaller, cheaper hardware to both transmit and receive data. Compression will “save billions of dollars,” Zvi told The Jerusalem Post. “If the data is compressed, the number of antennas and the amount of space they cover is much smaller.”

The images being sent from Spirit are the best NASA officials have ever seen of Mars. Scientists hope the photos will help them pinpoint the best areas to look for signs of water and evidence that life once existed on the Red Planet.

The space agency is also retrieving images via a “lossy” data compression — the system upon which JPEGs and streaming media are based. Unlike lossless compression, lossy purposefully loses information along the way, but the final image comes close enough to the original to be considered useful. However, lossless compression like LOCO-I is the only way to ensure error-free data.

“An image you want to show to the public, you can do that lossy,” Sapiro said. “But if you spent $800 million on this mission, you want to make sure that your analysis is using the correct data. If you analyze a rock, you want to make sure that the person doing the analysis is not making a mistake because of the compression.” — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

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

For 25 years, Ilan Ramon strapped himself into fighter jets to help protect Israel. Soon, the air force colonel will have a chance to view his embattled homeland from a perspective never before seen by a sabra. Ramon, a 48-year-old father of four, is going into space.

"Every time you are the first, it’s meaningful," Ramon said during a preflight interview last week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Probably the fact that I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor is even more symbolic [than usual]. I’m proof that even with all the hard times, we are going forward."

Ramon, who will be flying as a guest research scientist aboard the space shuttle Columbia, is scheduled to spend 16 days orbiting Earth with six career U.S. astronauts, including an Indian-born engineer and an African American payload commander.

Upon graduation from high school in Tel Aviv, Ramon was drafted into the military and attended flight training school. At 19, he was tapped to serve in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The danger, however, did nothing to quench his desire to fly.

"I love to fly," said Ramon, who became part of Israel’s first F-16 fighter squadron and served two stints as deputy commander for F-16 and F-4 squadrons. He sandwiched four years of college at Tel Aviv University in between his command posts, earning a bachelor’s of science degree. He earned the rank of colonel in 1994 and took control of the Weapon Development and Acquisition Department — a post he held until 1997 when a colleague called and asked him if he’d like to become an astronaut.

At first, Ramon thought the offer was a joke.

"When I was a kid growing up, nobody in Israel ever dreamed — well, most people wouldn’t dream — of being an astronaut, because it wasn’t on the agenda. So I never thought I would have been an astronaut," he said.

"I would like to see my mission as my first one, not my last," he added. — Irene Brown, Jewish Telegraphic Agency