Among the stars, NASA space shuttle program created Jewish space heroes


Judith Resnick, First Jewish astronaut

With NASA’s last space shuttle mission launched today, JTA remembers the role of Jewish crew members in previous shuttle missions. Aerospace writer Irene Brown offered this moving first person reflection after the Columbia shuttle tragedy in 2003, which took the life of Israeli astronaut and famed pilot Ilan Ramon:

When I first started covering space in 1987, I had no idea it would become a passion. The ideals, people and practices of space flight are valuable lessons and examples for any endeavor and it speaks volumes of Ilan Ramon that he found a home at NASA.

His being Jewish didn’t matter. His being Israeli didn’t matter. What mattered was his ability to work as a member of a team. In return, he was given the opportunity to look physically at the world as a global being. The fact that he did not make it home does nothing to diminish what he accomplished personally and on behalf of Israel.

Full timeline after the jump.

June 20, 1984 – JTA publishes Helen Silver’s interview with Judith Resnik, set to become the first Jewish astronaut and second female astronaut ever aboard the maiden flight of the
Space Shuttle Discovery.

August 30, 1984 – Maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Discovery, with Judith Resnik aboard.

April 12, 1985 – Jeffrey Hoffman becomes first Jewish male astronaut in space, brings mezuzahs and atarot aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. The mezuzahs went on display at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1987.

August 3, 1985 – An amateur radio enthusiast in Israel makes contact with the Space Shuttle Challenger via a ham radio operated by a crew member. The conversation — wherein an astronaut states “Israel looks beautiful from up here” is broadcast on Israeli radio the next day.

January 28, 1986 – Space Shuttle Challenger explodes about one minute after launch, tragically taking the lives of seven crew members, including Resnik.

January 31, 1986 – Following her cremation and  at Arlington National Cemetary Judith Resnik eulogized in Akron. a few days later, a memorial service in her honor was led by Ohio Senator and astronaut John Glenn.

February 2-5, 1986 – JTA bulletin items report on memorials for Resnik and the Challenger crew: a JNF forest in Jerusalem and a crater on Venus named after Resnik by Soviet cartographers.

April 19, 1986 – Judith Resnik’s father, Marvin, says manned space program should continue.

February 5, 1987 – JTA reports that a controversy has been resolved when a misspelled memorial plaque for Resnik in Titusville, FL is fixed.

December 11, 1993 – While repairing Hubble Space Telescope, Hoffman spins a dreidel on national television.

December 1995 – President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres formalize plans for NASA to train Israeli astronauts for space exploration missions.

November 1997 – Astronaut David Wolf delivers video remarks during the opening plenary of the General Assembly of the Council on Jewish Federations.

August 1999 – While training in Houston, Ilan Ramon announces he will carry Jewish artifacts when he goes into space (the date or details of his mission were not known at the time).

October 2002 – Before astronaut David Wolf sets off for space, his father prays for a safe journey with a Lubavitch rabbi.

January 2002 – Irene Brown profiles Col. Ilan Ramon, soon to be the first Israeli astronaut.

January 5, 2003 – A German psychology steals a small plane near Frankfurt and threatens to fly it into a European Central Banking building, eventually landing without incident. While airborne, the student claimed he wanted “to make my big idol Judith Resnik famous,” adding, “She was the firts Jewish astronaut. Perhaps that’s why she never got proper attention.” German news broadcasts didn’t address the latter point of the student, who himself was not Jewish.

January 16, 2003 – Shuttle Columbia launches. The next day, Irene Brown writes about the pride that Ramon has inspired in his fellow Jews and countrymen as the first Israeli in space, as well as some of the Jewish paraphenelia he plans to bring aboard. Brown writes another piece on January 28, four days before the scheduled return of the shuttle. “Between operating an Israeli atmospheric experiment, serving as a subject for a variety of medical tests and keeping research projects going in the shuttle’s laboratory, Ramon said he hasn’t even had a chance to think about what it means to be the first Israeli in orbit, though he was hoping to do so before the end of the flight.”

February 1, 2003 – The shuttle Columbia explodes upon reentry, killing all crew members, including Col. Ilan Ramon. Houston-area Jews hold memorial services for Ramon and the Columbia crew. Memorials were reported in Kiev , Israel and elsewhere in the U.S. JTA writer Rachel Pomerance explores Col. Ramon’s role in the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

February 2003 – The Israeli Space Agency reports that more than 80 percent of the data retreived by the ill-fated shuttle Columbia crew was relayed successfully to Earth. In June on that year, NASA would release 10 hours of video and 92 photos on the shuttle Columbia recovered in Texas.

October 2003– Names of Columbia crew members are carved into the National Space Mirror Memorial.  Other memorials would include, thousands of JNF trees , seven asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and the last composition by Israeli folk singer Naomi Shemer.

June 2006 – Garrett Reisman asks Ramon family for mementos from the late astronaut to bring on a forthcoming space mission.

February 28, 2007 – Astronaut Mark Polansky meets Holocaust survivor Sophie Turner-Zaretsky at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Polansky had carried a teddy bear in her likeness aboard the shuttle Discovery, his second mission to space.

February 2008- American astronauts visit Israel as part of an International Space Conference held in Herzliya in memory of Ramon.

April 2008 – Reisman becomes the first Jewish astronaut to live aboard the International Space Station, and reflects on Ilan Ramon while preparing for Passover in space; he was unable to bring matzah with him. In May he wished Israel a happy 60th birthday from space via video.


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