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Ramon´s widow promotes astronaut´s legacy

BOSTON, Nov. 6 (JTA) — Houston has been her family´s home for the last six years, but Rona Ramon — the widow of Israel´s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon — will soon be going home to Israel. That´s what her late husband would have wanted, she said. Ramon is intent on raising her children as Israelis. She said she stayed in the Houston area after her husband was killed when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded last Feb. 1 to maintain stability for her children as they went through the grieving process for their father. "The first priority is the children and myself," Ramon said. "In the last year, I lost not only Ilan, but my brother, Gabi Bar, too. He was with leukemia that came back after Ilan perished; we fought, but this time it was stronger than we were." In some ways, Ramon said, it would have been easier to stay in the United States. "The kids are here for six years, and they are not used to the language and identity" in Israel, she said. "I did not want to change them and tear them from the environment." Ramon and three other spouses of the crew that was killed in the explosion — Dr. Jonathan Clark, husband of Laurel Clark; Sandy Anderson, wife of Col. Michael Anderson; and Lani McCool, wife of pilot William McCool — came to Boston recently to launch a new science program developed by the Israel National Museum of Science, in Haifa. About 170 people came to the event, which raised about $5 million of the $20 million needed for the program. The program, Space Technology and Astrophysics Research for Students, or STARS, was named in honor of the Columbia Shuttle crew. It will utilize exhibits and hands-on learning experiences in a new wing at the Haifa museum that will teach students of all ages about space. STARS´ goals share those of the late Israeli astronaut: teaching children about science. The Columbia crew, Ramon said, represented the message that people from different backgrounds can work together toward a common goal. She said she wasn´t surprised the way the Jewish community embraced her former husband. "From outer space, Ilan was able to reach every Jewish person and to touch their identity as a Jew," she said. Ilan Ramon, a Tel Aviv native, was the son and grandson of Auschwitz survivors. He was a decorated veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon War, and he helped bomb Iraq´s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. He chose to observe Shabbat and keep kosher while he orbited Earth, even though he was a secular Jew. He also brought Jewish symbols with him to space, including a Torah that survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and a replica of a drawing by a 16-year-old Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz called "Moon Landscape." Jonathan Clark, Laurel Clark´s husband, said that the mission captured the imagination of the public because it was purely scientific. The crew´s unity, he said, was very real one — built throughout long weeks of training and subsequent delays. "In the aftermath of the tragedy, we were solidified as one," Clark said. "Now, I kind of joke and say it is like being married to four women because there really are four women I would do anything for — and Rona, in particular, as I so deeply admired her husband. I have a sense of respect that goes beyond the day to day. I would do anything for her children because I love her so much." Before the Columbia tragedy, the families developed social ties, meeting at each other´s houses at least once every few weeks. "I love Mediterranean food, so I loved going to the Ramon´s house," Clark said. "They had really great food, and I got immersed in the culture. One of the nights that I remember like yesterday was when Ilan told of us of the Baghdad raid against the nuclear plant. He gave us a blow-by-blow account of the strike planning and then the mission itself, so we would know why there would be this heightened security." He called Ramon "an Israeli hero who really took the sword to the heart of the enemy." Clark was one of the first people to meet Ramon, who was a colonel in Israel´s air force, when he arrived for training. As the physician in the space medicine office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, he administered Ramon´s flight physical. As the two became better friends, Clark said the Israeli pilot´s charisma became apparent. "I was in the presence of greatness," he said. "And it wasn´t a bravado. It was a humbleness, and he was able to pull you in and be a part of him in ways that are almost mystical." The grieving process has been more difficult in the public eye. "It´s hard for me to stand in front of an audience instead of Ilan because he was supposed to be here," Rona Ramon said. "I was there as his partner for this project, but as we are obliged to continue what he started, I feel we have to go on and keep this going." Ramon said that she spoke with her husband every day of the mission. "It was the best way to start and stop the day with letters, and we did write a lot of e-mails to each other," she recalled. "Everyone that saw Ilan in space saw his face, his smile and hear what he had to say," she said. "It was just beautiful. He was really happy. He was living his dream; not too many people are getting to live their dreams. I am sorry to end like that, so fateful and such a big loss." Rona said she knows it will be difficult for her kids to return to Israel. Living in the United States, she said, allows a person to feel you have a lot of free time. "We enjoyed Ilan like we never did in Israel," she said. "In Israel, he was so involved with the Israeli air force, which was very demanding and hard hours. And over here, we really enjoyed Ilan as a husband and father. We had a lot of fun together, we traveled a lot. We had a private life." Houston, she said, was a great place for the family. But Israel is home, she insisted. She said that even while every family in Israel knows the Ramon family, she and her kids were born in Israel. "You learn so many things from being outside Israel," said Rona. "You learn how important it is to have our country, a Jewish state. As much as we can live everywhere and live a private and successful life, our country is so great but not only for us, Israelis." She said, "I would recommend for every Israeli to live out of Israel for a year or two and then come back: It gives perspective of who you are."