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Longtime Israeli Fighter Pilot Poised to Soar into Space with Nasa

July 4, 2002
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For 25 years, Ilan Ramon strapped himself into fighter jets to help protect Israel.

Soon, the Air Force colonel will have a chance to view his embattled homeland from a perspective never before seen by a sabra. Ramon, a 48-year-old father of four, is going into space.

“Every time you are the first, it’s meaningful,” Ramon said during a preflight interview last week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“Probably the fact that I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor is even more symbolic” than usual. “I’m proof that even with all the hard times we are going forward.”

Ramon, who is flying as a guest research scientist aboard the space shuttle Columbia, is scheduled to spend 16 days orbiting Earth with six career U.S. astronauts, including an Indian-born engineer and an African-American payload commander.

A launch date for the five-man, two-woman crew, originally scheduled for the middle of this month, is pending, following the discovery of cracks in propulsion system equipment aboard two sister shuttles. Analysis is under way to determine if the ships are safe to fly as is, or if repairs are needed.

Ramon and his crew mates have learned patience.

In the two years since they began training, NASA has had to delay their mission several times to accommodate more pressing flights. Although Columbia remains at the top of the launch queue, space station assembly missions may take priority if shuttle repairs extend NASA’s launch hiatus into August and beyond.

NASA’s caution, however, sits well with Ramon, who has made a career in risky endeavors.

Upon graduation from high school in Tel Aviv, Ramon was drafted into the military and attended flight training school.

When he was just 19 years old, Ramon was tapped to serve in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The danger, however, did nothing to quench his desire to fly.

“I love to fly,” said Ramon, who moved on to A-4 and Mirage III-C aircraft training and operations before becoming part of Israel’s first F-16 fighter squadron.

“Flying aircraft — fighter aircraft — is great, and I was very happy.”

Ramon served two stints as deputy commander for F-16 and F-4 squadrons, sandwiching four years of college at Tel Aviv University in between his command posts. He studied electronics and computer engineering, earning a bachelor’s of science degree.

Ramon’s last bout of schooling was a squadron commanders course, which prepared him to lead a F-16 squadron and then move up to head the aircraft branch in the Air Force’s Operations Requirement Department.

Ramon earned the rank of colonel in 1994 and took over control of the Weapon Development and Acquisition Department — a post he held until 1997 when a colleague called and asked him if he’d like to become an astronaut.

At first, Ramon thought the offer was a joke.

But with the blessings of the Clinton administration, former NASA administrator Daniel Goldin and the Israeli government ironed out an agreement for cooperative space ventures between the two countries, including the training and flight of an Israeli astronaut.

“When I was a kid growing up, nobody in Israel ever dreamed — well, most people wouldn’t dream — of being an astronaut because it wasn’t on the agenda. So I never thought I would have been an astronaut. When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space. I was very excited,” Ramon said.

In 1998, Ramon, his wife, Rona, and their four children, who were between 2 and 10 years old at the time, packed up and relocated to Houston, leaving behind a close extended family.

A few of Ramon’s relatives and friends plan to travel to Florida to watch his launch, including his 79-year-old father. Ramon’s mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, is too ill with Alzheimer’s disease to travel.

“I’m not expecting a lot of people from Israel,” said Ramon, who speaks fluent, slightly accented English. “The hearts and the souls of the people from Israel will be with me, but maybe not the bodies.”

Keenly aware that he is flying as a representative of Israel, Ramon, who describes himself as a secular Jew, asked NASA if kosher meals might be available for his flight. Although several Jewish American astronauts have flown in space before, none had ever requested kosher meals.

“I was amazed how they made the effort to supply me,” said Ramon, whose lunch and dinner menus will include such delicacies as kosher old world stew and kosher chicken Mediterranean.

While Ramon won’t keep strictly kosher, he won’t mix meat and dairy foods, and will avoid shellfish and pork while in space.

Shabbat observance is another matter.

Ramon said he never even thought about marking the day of rest and was surprised when some rabbis raised the issue with him. The discussion, however, became largely academic, he said, as the impact on Ramon’s crew mates would be too great a burden if he didn’t work on Shabbat .

A small debate began, however, about how to mark the seventh day, when sunsets are occurring every 90 minutes in orbit.

“I think the solution was that since we, the astronauts,” go by “Houston time, Central time, then that’s when Shabbat will be for me also,” Ramon said.

Rather than lighting candles, however, Ramon may have to content himself with running one of the combustion experiments planned during the Columbia mission.

Ramon will be working with about 140 payloads in all, including an Israeli-sponsored experiment to study dust particles and how they affect Middle East weather. Discussions to continue the experiment aboard the space station after Ramon’s flight are under way.

“We have a lot to offer,” Ramon said, referring to Israel’s budding aerospace program.

As for his own future, Ramon is too focused on his upcoming spaceflight to dwell much on what lies ahead.

“I would like to see my mission as my first one, not my last,” he said.

Tucked into Ramon’s personal possessions when Columbia blasts off will be a drawing made by a 14-year-old boy named Peter Ginz, a Holocaust victim. The boy drew his vision of what the Earth would look like from the moon.

“It’s related to space, of course, and I feel like I’m taking his vision and his spirit of space,” said Ramon, who selected the drawing from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial after talks with museum directors.

Ramon acknowledges that his own view of the world may change after his flight.

“When we go up to space, Earth is one unity, and no borders are seen from there,” he said. “That’s the vision that NASA carries and that is my vision, too.”

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