February 6, 2003
Even for Israelis hardened by years of dealing with Palestinian terrorism, the death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon came as a difficult blow.
The weather itself seemed to reflect the national mood: A thick, mustard-colored fog blanketed Israel on Sunday afternoon, a day after Ramon and six other NASA astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Columbia broke into pieces as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere.
Even in a nation used to trauma, the Columbia tragedy hit especially close to home, said Naomi Baum, a psychologist at the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma.
"We identified with Ramon and his family, because we learned so much about them in the past four years, and especially in the past two weeks," Baum said. "It hurt so much, because we developed an intimacy with him and his family."
"In many ways, the shuttle disaster and the loss of Ramon, someone who represented so much of what was good about Israel, served to dredge up a lot of the other trauma Israelis have gone through in the past few years," she added.
Ramon was Israel's very own "right stuff" -- Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Yitzhak Rabin rolled into one. He was, many Israelis felt, the best of the best: professional, brash, modest, handsome -- and proud to be an Israeli and a Jew.
"We felt he was our messenger to the great wide world," Baum said, "and now feel like a true friend and leader is lost."
By Sunday, the hero's welcome that Israel had planned for its first astronaut had given way to mourning.
"Even for the world champions in watching disasters unfold on television, this event was not quite like anything we know," one commentator wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper.
Flags flew at half-staff and schools held special assemblies to remember the 48-year-old Ramon. A memorial ceremony was held for the astronaut at his former high school in Beersheba. Among those attending were Ramon's former classmates.
"Ilan was a hero, and yesterday afternoon he became a legend," former classmate Reuven Segev told current students at Mekif Gimel High School.
At Tel Aviv's prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium, more than 1,000 teenagers attended a memorial service for Ramon. A hush fell over the schoolyard as a student began to read from a poem Ramon's wife, Rona, had sent him while in orbit. The poem read:
"The last of my days is perhaps nigh/ Near is the day of tears of separation/ But I will wait for thee till my life is extinguished, as Rachel awaited her beloved."
The students were captivated by the words, the drama and a numbing pain with which they could all identify. The chatter picked up again, until a husky voiced youth on stage began to sing "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem.
"Maybe we are cursed," Eyal Oren, a 17-year-old student, said afterward. "We can't catch a break. Even the easy things are hard."
Amid the tragedy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed that Israel's space aspirations were not over, saying, "The day will come when we will launch more Israeli astronauts into space. I am sure that each and every one of them will carry in his heart the memory of Ilan Ramon, a pioneer in Israeli space travel."
Speaking at the start of Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon also said the deaths of the Columbia astronauts Saturday morning were not in vain. He extended condolences to the United States and the families of the other six Columbia crew members.
Memorial books were opened for Ramon in Israeli consulates around the world, an honor generally reserved only for heads of state.
After the Columbia disaster, President Bush phoned Sharon to express condolences over the loss of Ramon, the father of four and a former air force fighter pilot. Other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, also expressed their condolences to Sharon.
In Iraq, however, some felt the tragedy was divine justice. Iraq's official newspaper noted that one of the astronauts killed was a "Zionist," who had flown in Israel's 1981 raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.
Car mechanic Mohammed Jaber Tamini in Iraq told news agencies that Ramon's death was retribution for his role in that raid. "Israel launched an aggression on us when it raided our nuclear reactor without any reason," Tamini said. "Now time has come, and God has retaliated to their aggression."
The Jerusalem Post quoted some Palestinians offering similar viewpoints.
Security for the mission had been extremely tight, as officials feared that terrorists might target the shuttle, because an Israeli was on board. But officials were quick to rule out the possibility of terrorism in Saturday's tragedy.
Ramon's participation in the 16-day scientific research mission had been a boost for Israel's national morale, which has been battered by two years of Palestinian terrorism and a floundering economy.
"Ilan Ramon took the country to new heights," said former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was instrumental in arranging Ramon's participation.
The launch was significant not just for Israel's space program but because the presence of Ramon, the child of a Holocaust survivor, symbolized the Jewish people's perseverance. Though secular, Ramon requested kosher meals for the flight and took aboard a variety of ritual and symbolic objects.
Among the items Ramon took into space was a tiny Torah scroll that a 13-year-old boy received in Bergen-Belsen from the rabbi of Amsterdam in order to study for his bar mitzvah. The boy, Yehoyahin Yosef, survived the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel and went on to become a professor of planetary physics -- and was the person who oversaw the Israeli experiment on board the shuttle to check the impact of dust on climate conditions.
Following the Columbia loss, the front pages of Israel's dailies had pictures of Ramon, looking straight at the camera, his hand raised in a salute -- or was it a farewell?
"Shards of the Dream" was the headline appearing in the Israeli daily, Ma'ariv. The paper ran a full-page photo of burning debris from Columbia streaming down to Earth. "Crying for Israel," was Yediot Achronot's headline.
Ha'aretz commentator Ari Shavit described the pride Israelis felt in sending "one of our own" into space, and the hope it gave the nation that it could somehow "defy the gravity of its fate." But he added, "That hope keeps shattering."
In an interview with Ma'ariv last month, Ramon minimized fears about his safety, saying, "The chances an accident would happen in space are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I'm not concerned at all."
"In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else," he added. "The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup."
Along with Ramon, the Columbia -- which was on its 28th mission -- carried commander Rick Husband; pilot Willie McCool; mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla; and payload commander Mike Anderson.
When news of the disaster broke Saturday, members of Ramon's family, who were waiting at Cape Canaveral, were taken to a private location by NASA officials. Members of the family who were still in Israel were flown to the United States Saturday night.
Prior to their departure, they expressed disbelief over the disaster. In an interview earlier Saturday, Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, said he had exchanged e-mails with his son, and had last spoken to him via video conferencing when he was still in Houston.
"It was very emotional," Wolferman said. "Our family saw him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air."
Last Friday, Ramon sent his final e-mail to his wife. "Even though everything here is amazing, I cannot wait until I can see you," he wrote, according to the Israeli daily, Yediot Achronot. "A big hug for you and kisses to the kids."
Rona Ramon told reporters Sunday outside her home in Houston that her husband enjoyed every moment he was up in space. "He was with the people he loved and in the place that he enjoyed so much," she said.
She added that during the entire mission, she had no sense of foreboding.
"The only thing that tears me apart now is that during the liftoff, when we were all high, my youngest daughter yelled out, 'I lost my daddy.' Apparently she was right.''
The Israel Defense Forces have set up an e-mail address for the public to send condolence messages to Ramon's family at firstname.lastname@example.org . p>