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Israeli Astronaut Too Busy in Space to Think About His Place in History

January 28, 2003
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Israel’s first astronaut has been too busy to observe Shabbat, though he did make a Tu B’Shevat pitch for planting trees in Israel.

Mostly though, Ilan Ramon, who was slated to return to terra firma on Friday after 16 days in orbit, has been a key member of the crew on the space shuttle Columbia, overseeing 80 experiments and working in split, 12-hour shifts.

“I didn’t even have a chance to think about the Sabbath,” said Ramon, a secular Jew who nonetheless ate kosher meals and carried a kiddush cup in an acknowledgment that he was flying in space on behalf of Jews around the world.

“I’m secular and I didn’t get any special permission” to work on the Sabbath, he said during an in-flight interview. “I’m here with special teammates, crewmates, and I’m working every day.”

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.

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.

“I sure thought about it before getting to space,” he said early in the flight. But the team has been “real busy — and I didn’t have a chance to think about it up here.”

Ramon did make time for a short radio call with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who invited the entire shuttle crew to come visit Israel after the mission.

“If all Israelis are as nice as Ilan and his family, then I know we can expect a very warm welcome,” said Ramon’s commander, Rick Husband.

During the half-hour televised talk, Ramon held a small Torah scroll that had been smuggled into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II.

The scroll is owned by Yehoyachin Yosef, a Holocaust survivor and Israeli scientist who spearheaded the primary Israeli science experiment conducted aboard the shuttle.

Yosef was given the scroll by the chief rabbi of Holland at the time, who also was at Bergen-Belsen. Yosef used the scroll to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah at the concentration camp.

“This represents, more than anything, the ability of the Jewish people to survive, despite everything from horrible periods, black days, to reach periods of hope and belief in the future,” said Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor.

In addition to the Torah scroll, Ramon carried a picture drawn by a child who died during the Holocaust and a dollar bill from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, given to Ramon by a Florida rabbi from Chabad-Lubavitch.

In Jewish tradition, this is known as being a shaliach mitzvah. Upon departing on a journey, if one receives money to deposit to charity upon arrival, one becomes an emissary, or shaliach, for a good deed, or mitzvah, and is assured protection and success on the mission.

“Even when far from home, one should always think how I can help another person,” said Rabbi Zvi Konikov of Satellite Beach, Fla., located near the NASA launch site at Cape Canaveral.

Ramon has been able to spot fleeting glimpses of Israel from orbit. He said he was struck, however, by how thin and fragile the planet’s atmosphere looks from orbit.

“It’s in need of protection,” he said.

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