Israeli astronaut brought joy, then familiar sense of dread to a troubled country


Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon floats into Columbia's Spacehab in this view from television Sunday, Jan. 26, 2003. NASA lost communication with space shuttle Columbia as the ship soared over Texas several minutes before landing Saturday morning Feb. 1, 2003. It wasn't immediately clear if there was a problem with the shuttle.

AP Photo/NASA TV, FILE
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 10:56 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 10:56 a.m.

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, gave his compatriots something to cheer about when he blasted off last month on the space shuttle Columbia. The evident tragedy just minutes before landing Saturday brought back a familiar sense of dread.

"The government of Israel and the people of Israel are praying together with the entire world for the safety of the astronauts on the shuttle Columbia," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said in a statement. "The state of Israel and its citizens are as one at this difficult time."

Ramon "is fulfilling everyone's dream, to be the first Israeli in space," Israel's Channel Two commentator said just before liftoff last month.

The station was broadcasting the planned landing when the Columbia lost communication with ground controllers Saturday. Ramon's father was at the Channel Two studios in Jerusalem at the time, but the station said he would not be available for comment.

Ramon, 48, is an air force colonel and the son of a Holocaust survivor. His air force career included bombing an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

The Israeli media carried live broadcasts of the liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the story was on the front-page of every newspaper.

"It's a distraction from the feeling that this country is in really bad shape, the feeling of desperation, of helplessness, confusion, anger and fear," Israeli author Tom Segev said last month.

Some of the enthusiasm likely comes from the fact that Ramon is one of the country's top air force pilots, considered among the nation's military and professional elite. There's even a popular new television drama about the air force called "Wings."

Ramon has logged thousands of hours of flight time and was part of the first Israeli squad to pilot American-made F-16 fighter jets in 1980. He fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and in the 1982 war in Lebanon.

Ramon was one of the fighter pilots who destroyed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, a senior Israeli government official said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The attack, in which eight F-16 warplanes obliterated the French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad, was a milestone for Israeli aviation because the planes flew over enemy Arab territory for hours without detection. The pilots flew in a tight formation to send off a radar signal resembling that of a large commercial airliner.

Ramon began preparing in 1997 to join a space shuttle crew as a payload specialist. He spent much of Columbia's 16-day flight aiming cameras in an Israel Space Agency study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth's atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.

Ramon, whose mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp, honored those who endured the Holocaust. He carried a small pencil drawing titled "Moon Landscape" by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz.

He also packed a credit-card sized microfiche of the Bible given him by Israeli President Moshe Katsav and some mezuzas _ small cases that are hung on door frames of Jewish homes and contain inscriptions from the Bible.

Ramon's 79-year-old father gave him family photos to take into space and a brother had a letter stowed away in the shuttle for Ramon to read in orbit.

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