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First Israeli Astronaut Blasts Off, Carrying Country’s Pride into Space

Israelis are known as avid world travelers, but now one has gone out of this world.

Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor, joined six shuttle astronauts for a ride into space on Thursday, becoming the first Israeli to see his country in global perspective.

After months of delays, even Florida’s fickle weather was cooperative, providing a deep blue background for the twin pillars of white smoke that trailed the Columbia shuttle during it’s 8 «-minute climb to orbit.

"These are our national colors, you know," Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, pointed out.

Ayalon and about 300 guests of the embassy, many of whom had traveled from Israel, watched Ramon’s launch from a special viewing area at the Kennedy Space Center here. Among the guests were two former commanders of the Israeli air force.

"In two generations, we’ve moved from the lowest ebb, the darkest point of our history, to a very great moment of excellence and achievement," Ayalon said.

In Israel, officials kvelled over the milestone. President Moshe Katsav said Ramon’s liftoff "fills us with pride."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the event signaled that "the sky is not the limit."

Israeli newspapers gave the countdown front-page coverage, while radio and television carried live broadcasts of the liftoff.

"One giant leap for Israel," Yediot Achronot said, while Ma’ariv said Ramon "touches the skies."

Ma’ariv said the event marked a significant step in Israel’s participation in space research, with implications for the country’s technological progress and security. Though the Israel Space Agency was established only in 1982, Israel is one of only eight countries that can launch satellites.

A married father of four, Ramon, 48, is a former fighter pilot and weapons specialist who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in the 1982 Lebanon War. In 1981, he took part in the Israeli air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.

Though Ramon comes from a secular background, he said he hoped during the mission to show respect for all Jews around the world.

He asked NASA for kosher food for the mission and consulted with rabbis on how to observe the Sabbath while whizzing above the earth. He is taking with him a microfiche Bible presented by Katsav, mezuzahs and a dollar bill from the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Ramon also was taking a drawing lent by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, titled "Lunar landscape." The drawing was made in the Teresienstadt Ghetto by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Czech Jew who was a fan of Jules Verne.

Yad Vashem officials said the picture "connects the dream of one Jewish boy who is a symbol of the talent lost in the Holocaust, to the journey of one Jewish astronaut, who is a symbol of our revival."

Ramon also was taking four songs from his wife and letters from his brother and son.

Ramon’s son wouldn’t reveal the contents of the letter, except to say that he told his father "how much I love him, how proud I am of him, and that he’s the best dad in the world."

Despite the presence of an Israeli astronaut, NASA says its security measures were the same as they have been since Sept. 11. However, restrictive zones were set up around the Cocoa Beach, Fla., hotel where most of the Israeli guests were staying.

The crowd, which included several American Jews from local and national organizations, waved Israeli flags and sang "Oseh shalom bimromav" — "make peace in the heavens" — as the shuttle faded from view.

The mission is scheduled to last 16 days.

Ayalon hailed Ramon’s flight as "a testament to Israeli achievements in science and technology."

"We’re very happy and proud to share and pull together with our best friend and ally, the United States," he said. "Cooperation is great; it’s another dimension that we’ve taken into space, and it’s a great beginning of many more opportunities to come."

Others watching the blastoff were more down to earth.

"I thought it was tremendous," said Danny Doron, 57, a friend of Ramon’s from Haifa who now lives in Houston. "I’m very proud."

"All you hear about Israel now is that there are problems, war, terrorism," added Doron’s wife, Rachel. "For a change we have something else to look to."

Ramon and his crew mates will work on more than 80 science experiments, including one designed by a group of Israeli students.

Ramon’s main role will be to use a camera designed to study sandstorms in the Middle East and their impact on global warming. The study, designed at Tel Aviv University, is intended to provide information on how dust affects rainfall.

"For the younger generation, this stands for what we really want to promote: excellence, involvement and contributing and helping all humankind," Ayalon said.

Ramon has been training at the Space Center in Houston for his role as a payload specialist since 1998.

The shuttle mission had been postponed several times over the past two years. Most recently, it was pushed back six months because of repairs to the shuttle and because of space station assembly missions that were considered higher priority.

"If there’s ever a time to use the phrase ‘All good things come to people who wait,’ this is it," launch director Michael Leinbach said. "Good luck and Godspeed."

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