"When Ilan Ramon blasted into space on January 16, 2003, on the space shuttle Columbia, the hopes and dreams of an entire nation went with him," stated Tanya Lee Stone in Ilan Ramon: Israel's First Astronaut. "Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut, lifting the spirits of a war–torn country, giving pride to every Israeli and to people around the world." Their elation was cut short. On February 1, Ramon (1954–2003) lost his life when the Columbia exploded just minutes before its scheduled landing.
Ilan Wolferman – who later changed his last name to Ramon – was born on June 20, 1954, in the small town of Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel. Ramon and his older brother Gadi grew up in Ramat Gan and in another Israeli city called Beersheba.
Ramon's parents were refugees from Europe, according to the book Ilan Ramon: Israel's First Astronaut. Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, and his family had fled from the dangers of growing anti–Semitism in Germany in 1935. Wolferman and his father later fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. Ramon's mother Tova, born in Poland, was a survivor of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. In 1949, she and her mother emigrated to Israel, where she met and married Ramon's father.
Trained to be a Fighter Pilot
The biography, Ilan Ramon, noted that Ramon had been a popular boy in school, excelling in all subjects, especially science and math. He developed a passion for flying after taking a ride in a friend's small plane. At 18, after graduating high school, he joined the military and signed up for flight school with the Israeli Air Force (IAF). Ramon fought in the Yom Kippur War, a three–week war with Egypt and Syria, in October, 1973. In 1974, he graduated as a fighter pilot, at the top of his class at IAF Flight School.
After flight school, the biography noted, Ramon decided to change his last name (from Wolferman), following the example of Prime Minister David Ben–Gurion, who had urged Israeli soldiers to take a Hebrew name as he had done.
Over the next nine years, Ramon received training and gained experience flying A–4, Mirage III–C, and F–16 aircraft. When the IAF acquired the new F–16s, a fast, light fighter jet, Ramon was one of the first pilots chosen to form an F–16 squadron. From 1981–1983, he served as the Deputy Squadron Commander B for the F–16 Squadron.
Remarkable Air Force Career
A U.S. News & World Report article commented that Ramon ". . . was one of the best Israeli fighter jocks of his generation. He made his name in 1981, becoming the youngest of eight pilots on one of the most daring missions in IAF history - the bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor."
This mission was considered a milestone in Israeli aviation history, noted a Jerusalem Post article. The F–16s flew over enemy Arab territory without detection by flying in a "tightly bunched formation to send off a radar signal like that of a large commercial airliner."
In 1983, Ramon, 29, took time off from the IAF to attend college at Tel Aviv University. It was here that he met and married his wife, Rona Bar Simantov. He received his bachelor of science degree in electronics and computer engineering in 1987. Ramon returned to the military in 1988, serving as a deputy squadron commander and then squadron commander. In 1994, the IAF promoted Ramon to colonel, placing him in charge of developing the weapons systems for the entire Israeli air force.
By April, 1997, Ramon had logged in more than 4,000 flight hours in Israeli military aircraft when he received astonishing news. He had been selected to become Israel's first astronaut and train for the United States space program.
Preparing for Journey to Space
In July, 1998, Ramon, his wife Rona, and their four children left Israel and moved to Texas so that he could report for training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Joining six American astronauts, Ramon was trained on every aspect of an STS–107 space shuttle mission, as well as for his special duty as a Payload Specialist, in charge of scientific experiments.
During its flight, Columbia's crew would conduct more than 80 biology, chemistry, physics and climate experiments, transmitting its data back to scientists on Earth. One of the main experiments Ramon ran was the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment (MEIDEX). As noted in Ilan Ramon, his job was to watch for dust clouds and aim the MEIDEX camera at them whenever he saw one. Ramon's friend, scientist Joachim Joseph, who worked on MEIDEX at Tel Aviv University, said, "It's important to know where the dust is and what it is doing. Dust acts against the effect of greenhouse gases. Desert dust is also an important source of minerals for ocean life. It transfers spores, bacteria, and viruses such as influenza from continent to continent."
Honored his Heritage
Ramon began to realize the importance of his role as the first Israeli astronaut, representing Israelis and all Jews. As noted in the Jerusalem Post, Ramon said, "I know my flight is very symbolic for the people of Israel, especially the survivors, the Holocaust survivors. Because I was born in Israel, many people will see this as a dream come true. I'm kind of the proof for my parents and their generation that whatever we've been fighting for in the last century is becoming true."
To represent Israel, Ramon wore a patch of the Israeli flag on his space suit. Although not a religious person, Ramon also requested kosher meals for the mission. In the Jerusalem Post, Israeli President Moshe Katsav was quoted as saying, "Ramon became a Jewish international hero, not just because he participated in the shuttle mission, but because of the symbolism he brought to the mission by his decision to honor the Jewish heritage through the objects he brought with him and the respect he showed for the Jewish religion while in space."
He brought aboard the Columbia three special items. One was a small Torah scroll that had been given to a young boy by a Rabbi in a German concentration camp called Bergen–Belson during the Holocaust. The second item was a Mezuzah, a tiny piece of parchment with a passage from the Torah, rolled up inside a decorative container that hangs in the doorway of a Jewish home. The Mezuzah, showing a Star of David, symbol of Israel, surrounded by barbed wire, was designed by a young Israeli woman whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
The third item Ramon chose was a copy of a drawing by a 14–year–old boy, Petr Ginz, who died at Auschwitz during World War II. The picture, called Moon Landscape, showed the boy's vision of Earth, as seen from the moon. As noted in the Jerusalem Post, Ramon talked about Ginz's drawing while training at Houston Space Center, "I feel that my journey fulfills the dream of Petr Ginz 58 years on. A dream that is ultimate proof of the greatness of the soul of a boy imprisoned within the ghetto walls, the walls of which could not conquer his spirit."
Jewish International Hero
On January 16, 2003, the Columbia launched into space. Millions watched the launch in Israel. Jews everywhere were celebrating. "Ilan Ramon is taking his place in the history books. One of the sons of the State of Israel will gaze at us from space," said Israeli television reporter Yonit Levy.
U.S. News & World Report reported that Ramon was already ". . . a national hero and a household name by the time he rocketed into space. Public schools taught about his exploits. A medal was struck in his honor. After 2 1/2 years of unrelenting bad news about war, terror, and hard economic times, Ramon's story was like a desperately needed holiday for Israelis."
The View from Space
Although kept busy with his work on science experiments, Ramon reveled in the beauty and wonders that he saw. As noted in Ilan Ramon, he said, "The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile. The atmosphere is so thin and fragile, and I think all of us have to keep it clean and good. It saves our life and gives our life." Ramon also talked about his homeland: "The quiet that envelops space makes the beauty even more powerful, and I only hope that the quiet can one day spread to my country."
The Jerusalem Post reported that Ilan sent an email from space to Israel president Moshe Katsav: "Mr. President . . . please convey my deep appreciation to all Israel's citizens, and let them know that I am honored to be their first representative ever in space. In our mission, we have a variety of international scientific experiments and scientists working . . . for the benefit of all mankind. From space our world looks as one unit without borders. So let me call from up here in space let's work our way for peace and better life for every one on Earth."
On February 1, 2003, the Columbia was headed back to earth on schedule, when a problem developed. NASA's ground control noticed that temperatures had begun to rise in the shuttle's brakes, wheels, and wing flaps. Then the sensors stopped working. As described in Ilan Ramon, "At 9:00 a.m. all communication was lost. Bright flashes and loud booms quickly followed the silence. People in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas saw the shuttle blasting apart."
At a little after 2:00 p.m., United States President George W. Bush told the world, "The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors." Everyone grieved for the seven lost astronauts. "In Israel," Ilan Ramon noted, "headlines read, 'Crying for Ilan' and 'Pieces of the Dream.' People lit candles, made signs, played sad music, and held memorials in his honor."
Thousands of people from around the world sent their condolences to the family of Ramon. "Poems, prayers, and tributes were sent from Iran, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Argentina, India, and the Palestinian Authority areas," reported the Jerusalem Post.
In Ilan Ramon, Joachim Joseph said, "I think Ilan represented the good part in each and every one of us. He was a true Israeli hero—brave, straightforward and optimistic. He was a good role model for us."
A funeral was held at Lod Air Force Base, near Ben–Gurion Airport, in Israel on February 11, 2003. Ramon was buried at the Moshav Nahalal cemetery. During a very moving ceremony, reported the Jerusalem Post, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, "Ilan, the son of a mother who survived the Holocaust, and a father who is a veteran of the War of Independence, was a courageous combat pilot and an outstanding officer, and was among the best of our sons and warriors. On his last mission he soared higher than any other Israeli, and realized his dream."
Joseph remembered Ramon as "active and quick and intelligent, caring, so it was impossible not to like him . . . When you saw him, you immediately took to him. I particularly liked the way he interacted with his children."
Rona, Ramon's widow, later told a television reporter, "We take comfort that Ilan left [us] at his peak moment in his favorite place, with people he loved." She added, "He wasn't afraid. He left us with a feeling of confidence . . . everyone who knows him, knows that it's impossible to remember him without a smile on his face, and we will continue with that same smile."
The United States posthumously awarded Ramon the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the Distinguished Public Service Medal.
Stone, Tanya Lee, Ilan Ramon: Israel's First Astronaut, Millbrook Press, 2003.
Jerusalem Post, February 1, 2003; February 2, 2003; February 3, 2003; February 11, 2003.
Time, February 10, 2003.
U.S. News & World Report, May 5, 2003.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration website,http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/PS/ramon.html (December 1, 2004).
"Ilan Ramon," National Aeronautics and Space Administration website,http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/archives/sts-107/memorial/ramon.html (December 1, 2004).