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First Person for a Jewish Space Writer, Shuttle Tragedy Was All Too Personal

February 4, 2003
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As an aerospace writer, I have watched 87 crews slip the bonds of Earth’s gravity and rocket away into space. The tension is tangible each time the laws of physics are put to the test.

On Saturday, out of the blue, we all learned a cruel lesson about the speed, heat and friction that can prove fatal upon return to the planet as well.

Being Jewish, having parents in Israel, brought this crew closer to me.

Jews have flown in space before, of course. David Wolf lived on the Russian Mir space station; Jeff Hoffman took a menorah to space during one of his shuttle missions; Judy Resnik died aboard the Challenger.

But none of these people flew with the Star of David on their arm patch. None spoke Hebrew, asked for kosher food or chatted with the prime minister of Israel from orbit.

Ilan Ramon’s inclusion on the Columbia crew electrified Jews, secular and religious alike.

His death, mercifully not at the hands of terrorists, snatched a hero away before he could be welcomed home.

During his blissful 16 days in space, Ramon commented about how beautiful, how thin and how fragile the atmosphere appears from orbit. How it needs to be cared for. How ironic that what he spent his time in space studying was ultimately responsible for his death.

I feel sadness for all the crew members, but thinking of Ramon brings tears to my eyes.

I can relate to that star on his patch; I know why NASA managers broke their self-imposed pledge not to discuss crew remains when an Israeli journalist, intent and focused, pointedly asked about how Ramon’s remains would be handled.

Jews have different laws, traditions and customs for handling the deceased. NASA said these would be honored and they were working with the Israeli government to ensure that.

Saturday was a day without hours, just one continuum that ended with my 11-year-old son in my arms in my bed.

I forced myself not to think about Rona Ramon and her fatherless children, ages 14, 12, 9 and 5. I tell my son that the astronauts died doing what they wanted to do, what made them feel most alive.

“You mean they wanted to die?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “They wanted to live and they knew that what they were doing was more dangerous than some jobs. More people die every day in car crashes than flying in space,” I added.

We cannot control how and when we die. We can try to postpone the inevitable with healthy diet, exercise, cancer screenings, seat belts and motorcycle helmets, but largely our time on Earth is beyond our control.

What we can choose is how we live.

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.

My son said his Shema that night, then we pulled out a prayer book and read the Mourners Kaddish. It didn’t feel complete, so I read the translation in English. That too fell short. Then I found this by Morris Adler:

“Out of love may come sorrow; but out of sorrow can come light for others who dwell in darkness. And out of the light we bring to others will come light for ourselves — the light of solace, of strength, of transfiguring.”

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