Ramon, Ilan (1954–2003)

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Ramon, Ilan

Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli, and the fourth Middle Easterner, to fly in space.


Ilan Ramon was born as Ilan Wolferman on 20 June 1954, in Ramat Gan, Israel. After finishing secondary school in 1972, he went into the Israeli military, as is required of most young Israelis. When the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War broke out, Ramon was serving in the Israeli Air Force. The year after the war, he completed flight school and became a fighter pilot. He eventually was qualified to fly the F-4 Phantom and Mirage III-C, and, starting in 1980, the new F-16 Falcons that Israel received from the United States. In June 1981, Ramon was one of the Israeli pilots who bombed and heavily damaged the Osirak nuclear reactor in al-Tuwaytha, Iraq, during a preemptive Israeli attack that was condemned by United Nations Security Council Resolution 487. He served in a number of capacities in the air force, and by August 1994 had been promoted to the rank of colonel.

Ramon was selected to become an astronaut in 1997, and reported for training in Houston, Texas, in July 1998. He flew into space, becoming the first Israeli (and the fourth Middle Easterner) to do so, several years later when he served as a payload specialist aboard the American space shuttle Columbia's STS-107 mission from 16 January through 1 February 2003. He spent 15 days, 22 hours, and 20 minutes in space, longer than any other Middle Eastern astronaut or cosmonaut. As a payload specialist, he worked on several experiments during the flight, including the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment.


Name: Ilan Ramon, (born Ilan Wolferman)

Birth: 1954, Ramat Gan, Israel

Death: 2003, over Texas

Family: Wife, Rona; three sons, Asaf, Tal, Yiftah; one daughter, Noa

Nationality: Israeli

Education: B.S., Tel Aviv University, 1987


  • 1972: Enters Israeli Air Force
  • 1974: Completes flight school
  • 1981: Participates in bombing raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor
  • 1997: Selected as astronaut
  • 1998: Begins astronaut training
  • 2003: Flies into space; dies upon reentry

Ramon, whose mother was a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, was not an observant Jew. However, he was conscious of the symbolism of being the first Israeli in space (he was not the first Jewish astronaut; that distinction belongs to Judith Resnick, an American who died in the Challenger disaster in January 1986). Because the flight might mean so much to Jews around the world, including religious ones, Ramon took with him certain items of religious significance: kosher meals; a microfilmed copy of the Torah given to him by Israeli president Moshe Katzav; and a small Torah scroll from the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. He also consulted with rabbis prior to the mission about how to observe the Sabbath properly—the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday evening, but determining when "sundown" occurs while in space presents special problems. Ramon also took along a drawing titled "Moon Landscape," a vision of what the moon must look like from space drawn by a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy named Peter Ginz, who died at Auschwitz.

Ramon and the other shuttle astronauts died on 1 February 2003, when the ship broke up during reentry into the atmosphere over Texas. Parts of his body were recovered and identified later amid crash debris, and buried in Nahalal, Israel. Part of an Israeli Air Force flag that he took into space with him also was recovered.


Israelis were jubilant during Ramon's time in space. The flight represented more than just another space journey: For many Israelis, his feat was deeply symbolic. Prior to his mission, Ramon himself spoke openly about the significance of his being the first Israeli in space, and pointed out that he was the son of a mother who survived the Nazi Holocaust, and a father who fought in Israel's war of independence. Both then and during his flight, he was conscious of the symbolism of his feat: An Israeli Jewish phoenix rising into a new day from the dark ashes of the past.

The space flight also came as a joyous and proud moment for Israel, which at that point had been locked in over one and one-half years of bitter fighting with the Palestinians during the al-Aqsa intifada.


Ramon's space journey garnered considerable media attention. His tragic death along with those of the other Columbia astronauts immortalized him, and press accounts generally lauded him as a man of humor and stoicism.


Ramon largely will be remembered as the first Israeli in space. His role in the 1981 bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq tends to be overlooked compared to his achievement in space, although in a historical sense, the Osirak attack was much more important to Middle Eastern and global history. Had the reactor not been bombed, Iraq would have been much closer than it was to developing nuclear weapons by the time of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It is even conceivable that it might have possessed nuclear weapons by that time, with the result that the United States might not have attacked Iraq in 1991 and 2003.


Abbey, Allen D. Journey of Hope: The Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel's First Astronaut. Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2003.

"Preflight Interview: Ilan Ramon." National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Available from http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/archives/sts-107/crew/intramon.html.

Stone, Tanya Lee. Ilan Ramon: Israel's First Astronaut. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press, 2003.

                                     Michael R. Fischbach