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Israel embraced astronaut as hero and source of hope

Ilan Ramon saw himself as a representative of the Jewish people. Those who knew him say he died pursuing his dream.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003

As the first Israeli to go into space, Col. Ilan Ramon became a hero to millions of Israelis eager for relief from the constant threat of earth-bound violence.

"It's kind of a safe adventure," Moshe Halbertal, a Hebrew University professor, said last week as Ramon and the other Columbia astronauts circled the globe.

"Given the fact that it's in the outer space, it's safe, secure. It's daring yet normal. And I think this is a very deep quest, given the day-to-day grinding conditions that Israelis are in now."

The excitement over the Jan. 16 launch was matched only by the anticipation Israelis felt as they turned on their TVs late Saturday afternoon for Columbia's triumphant return. But it was not to be. Instead, Shabbat, the Jewish holy day, ended with Israel once again in mourning.

Ramon's wife, Rona, and four children were waiting for him at Cape Canaveral; his father was in a Jerusalem TV studio, about to be interviewed live, when word came that ground controllers had lost contact with Columbia. The elder Ramon was quickly led away.

Others who knew the 48-year-old astronaut say he died living a dream.

"I'm sure he was the most satisfied of people in his last moment," Ronit Federman, a boyhood friend, told an Israeli TV station. "He wrote about the divine happiness of looking at Earth. He wrote that he would like to keep floating for the rest of his life. That was the last sentence he wrote to us."

Officials said Saturday they have no evidence of terrorism, but the presence of an Israeli crew member prompted heightened security around the mission. A large SWAT team stood by Jan. 16 as Ramon and his crewmates rode to the launch pad under heavy police escort. Feelings against Israel are running high around the world as violence continues between Israelis and Palestinians and as war looms with Iraq. The impending conflict with Iraq is widely seen in the Mideast as a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy to control the region's oil supply.

It was against such a backdrop that Israel's 5-million Jews embraced the boyish-looking Ramon as a symbol of national pride.

Born in Tel Aviv, Ramon was a top fighter pilot who served during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon war. He also was among those who helped destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

In 1997, NASA selected Ramon to train for a shuttle mission and he and his family moved to Houston a year later. As the launch date neared, Israeli TV broadcast special programs, newspapers ran daily stories and teachers devoted entire classes to the mission.

"I think that for kids, space is inspiring," Ramon said in a preflight NASA interview.

A payload specialist aboard Columbia, Ramon helped conduct experiments submitted by students from around the world, including Israel. He also monitored the impact of desert dust on global warming and rainfall.

He was not particularly religious, but Ramon saw himself as a representative of the Jewish people and decided to observe Shabbat in space. Since the Jewish sabbath runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, that raised the question of when to observe it on a shuttle circling the planet every 90 minutes. Ramon consulted with rabbis, who agreed that the two extraterrestrial Shabbats -- Jan. 17-18 and 25-26 -- should be based on times at the launch point, Cape Canaveral.

Ramon also ate kosher, freeze-dried meals and carried a miniature Torah scroll.

And Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, loaned him a pencil drawing by a 14-year-old boy who died at the Nazis' Auschwitz death camp. It depicted Earth as seen from the moon, and reminded Ramon, whose mother and grandmother survived the Holocaust, of what the Jewish people have endured.

It reminded him, too, what Columbia's crew hoped to contribute to their beautiful, but troubled, planet.

"We are a global community," he said. "And when you get to science and especially space science, that's the best tool and way of living like a global community. The benefits are going to be shared by (all) the humans in the world."

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