Mission of Israeli Astronaut Ends Not with Fanfare, but with Tragedy

The hero’s welcome that Israel planned for its first astronaut has given way to mourning.

But even amid the tragedy involving Ilan Ramon, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed that Israel’s space aspirations were not over.

“The day will come when we will launch more Israeli astronauts into space,” Sharon said.”I am sure that each and every one of them will carry in his heart the memory of Ilan Ramon, a pioneer in Israeli space travel.”

Speaking at the start of Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon also said the deaths Saturday morning of Ramon and six NASA astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia were not in vain.

Sharon expressed the sentiment held by Jews around the world when he also extended condolences to the United States and the families of the six NASA crew members.

On Sunday, flags flew at half-staff, and Israeli schools held special assemblies to remember Ramon, 48.

In addition, a memorial ceremony was held for Ramon at his high school in Beersheba. Among those attending the ceremony were Ramon’s brother, Gadi, and the astronaut’s former classmates.

“Ilan was a hero, and yesterday afternoon, he became a legend,” a former classmate, Reuven Segev, told current students at Mekif Gimel High School.

There are plans to name a street, a square or a building in Beersheba after Ramon, said the city’s mayor, Ya’acov Turner.

Memorial books were opened for Ramon in Israeli consulates around the world, said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

After the crash, President Bush phoned Sharon to express condolences over the loss of Ramon, a father of four and a former air force fighter pilot.

“The president said he knows that aboard the shuttle was a brave Israeli, Col. Ilan Ramon, and asked that the Ramon family receive the condolences of the entire American people, his personal condolences, and expressed solidarity with them at this difficult time in their lives,” Sharon’s office said in a statement.

Other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also expressed their condolences to Sharon.

In Iraq, however, some felt the tragedy was God’s retribution.

Iraq’s official newspaper noted that one of the astronauts killed was a “Zionist” who had flown in Israel’s 1981 raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.

Car mechanic Mohammed Jaber Tamini told news agencies that Ramon’s death was retribution for his role in that raid.

“Israel launched an aggression on us when it raided our nuclear reactor without any reason,” Tamini said. “Now time has come and God has retaliated to their aggression.”

Security for the mission had been extremely tight, as officials feared that terrorists might target the shuttle because an Israeli was on board. But officials were quick to rule out the possibility of terrorism in Saturday’s tragedy.

NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said there were no immediate indications that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground.

Ramon’s participation in the 16-day scientific research mission had been a boost for Israel’s national morale, which has been battered by two years of Palestinian terrorism and a floundering economy.

“Ilan Ramon took the country to new heights,” said former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was instrumental in arranging Ramon’s participation in the flight.

In addition to the significance of the launch for Israel’s space program, the participation of Ramon, the child of Holocaust survivors, symbolized the Jewish people’s perseverance.

Though secular, Ramon requested kosher meals for the flight and took on board a variety of ritual and symbolic objects.

Among them was a tiny Torah scroll a 13-year-old boy received in Bergen-Belsen from the rabbi of Amsterdam in order to study for his Bar Mitzvah.

The boy, Yehoyahin Yosef, survived the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel and went on to become a professor of planetary physics — and was the person who oversaw the Israeli experiment on board the shuttle to check the impact of dust on climate conditions.

In a satellite hookup with Sharon during the mission, Ramon said the Torah symbolizes “more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest of days to days of hope and faith in the future.”

Ramon also carried a credit-card sized microfiche of the Bible given to him by Israeli President Moshe Katsav, and some mezuzahs.

Following the Columbia crash, the country was thrust into the grief it has known all too well during more than two years of Palestinian violence.

“Shards of the dream” was the headline appearing in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. The paper ran a full-page photo of burning debris from the Columbia, along with a photo of Ramon in his shuttle uniform.

“Crying for Israel,” was Yediot Achronot’s headline.

Ha’aretz commentator Ari Shavit described the pride Israelis felt in sending “one of our own” into space, and the hope it gave the nation that it could somehow “defy the gravity of its fate.”

This is a hope that keeps shattering, he wrote.

In an interview with Ma’ariv last month, Ramon minimized fears about his safety.

“The chances an accident would happen in space are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I’m not concerned at all,” he said. “In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else. The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup.”

Along with Ramon, the shuttle — which was on its 28th mission — carried commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and payload commander Mike Anderson.

When news of the disaster broke Saturday, members of Ramon’s family — who were waiting at Cape Canaveral — were taken to a private location by NASA officials.

Members of the family who were still in Israel were flown to the United States on Saturday night.

Prior to their departure, they expressed disbelief over the disaster.

“I would never have believed this could happen,” Ramon’s father, Eliezer Wolferman, said from his home near Beersheba.

In an interview earlier Saturday, Wolferman said he had exchanged e-mails with his son, and had last spoken to him via video conference when he was still in Houston.

“It was very emotional. Our family saw him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air,” Wolferman said.

Last Friday, Ramon sent his final e-mail to his wife, Rona.

“Even though everything here is amazing, I cannot wait until I can see you,” he wrote, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “A big hug for you and kisses to the kids.”

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