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