"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 that is 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."
- Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut
It was with those noble sentiments in mind that Ilan Ramon blasted off into space last month, proudly representing his people and his country as a member of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia. His valor in life, as well as his personal family history, moved nearly every Israeli, just as his untimely death yesterday during Columbia's reentry shocked and saddened the entire nation.
Even for a country buffeted by death and violence over the past two years, Ramon's death came as an enormous blow. At one time or another, every child looks skyward and imagines what it would be like to venture among the stars. Ramon embodied the fulfillment of those dreams for each and every one of us, lifting our spirits at a time of great national difficulty, and reminding us all of just how far this country has come since its establishment.
After all, it was just six decades ago that Ramon's mother and grandmother emerged from the horrors of the Holocaust. As Ramon himself pointed out, it was no less than a "miracle" that he was being sent to represent the sovereign Jewish state as its first astronaut.
Aware of the deep significance of his mission, Ramon sought to underline the importance of Jewish unity and mutual respect. He took aboard various items, such as a kiddush cup, a Book of Psalms and a picture drawn by a 14-year-old Jewish boy named Peter Ginz who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. He did this, he said, to "emphasize the unity of the people of Israel and the Jewish communities abroad." Though not religiously observant, Ramon also insisted on taking a mezuza along with him, and even asked NASA to supply him with kosher food. "This is symbolic," he said. "I thought it would be nice to represent all kinds of Jews, including religious ones."
The reasons behind Columbia's disintegration remain unclear, and the investigation into the disaster is likely to take some time. Yesterday's tragedy was the first of its kind in the 42-year history of the US manned space program, which had never before seen an accident during a descent to Earth or landing. It was the 113th flight in NASA's 22-year old shuttle program, and the 28th flight for the Columbia, the oldest shuttle. Yesterday's disaster was equal in its devastation only to the January 28, 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger moments after liftoff.
In addition to Ramon, there were six other brave men and women on board the shuttle. Indeed, the make-up of Columbia's crew was testimony to the greatness of America, for it included an immigrant from India, a black physicist, and a female flight surgeon, demonstrating yet again that color and gender do not serve as barriers to success in the land of freedom. And, by inviting foreign nationals such as Ramon to fly aboard the shuttle and benefit from American know-how, the US was underlining both its generosity of spirit and benevolence.
In the final analysis, Col. Ramon is likely to be recalled largely for the traumatic circumstances of his death, but that would not be doing justice to the greatness of his life. He fought for his country, defending it in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon war, and participated in the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. As Israel's first astronaut, he used his fame to spread a message of inter-Jewish conciliation and unity, reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer as the shuttle flew over Jerusalem.
By going into space, Ramon proved how high man can reach when he puts his intellect to productive use. But by reminding us all just how proud we should be of this country and of our identity as Jews, he also showed how high man can soar when his life is devoted to the common good. May Col. Ilan Ramon's memory, and those of his six fellow astronauts, be a blessing.
©2003 - Jerusalem Post