February 22, 2020

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.”