One of the astronauts on that ill-fated mission was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. His journey on Columbia is documented in heart-breaking detail in "Columbia -- The Tragic Loss," an Israel-based TH production, which will be shown at UCLA Hillel on March 14.
A true Israeli hero, Ramon was the last of the eight pilots who bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. As the last in the formation, he held the most perilous position during a mission in which up to three of the pilots were thought likely to die. He did not hesitate to take that assignment, nor did he hesitate to serve as a member of the Columbia crew.
"I'm a very cynical guy. I don't believe in human heroes," director Naftaly Gliksberg said in a phone interview from Israel.
Gliksberg has made documentaries about searing political topics, ranging from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to global anti-Semitism to an upcoming film about Israel-Iran relations in the 1990s. When the filmmaker first met Ramon in Houston before the flight, he joked to the astronaut, "You are a nonstory; you have no prostitute sister; you are from a very well-off family."
A clean-cut, handsome mensch, Ramon lacked the stereotypical cockiness of most combat pilots. As another astronaut says in "Columbia -- The Tragic Loss," Ramon was much "more of an artist" than the other crewmembers. The 60-minute documentary, which was released in Israel in 2004, shows a serene man, whose poetic sensibilities are revealed through his diary entries, which were retrieved from the wreckage.
This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the story, the way that the individual scraps of charred, torn paper survived the disintegration of the space shuttle and were reconstituted like missing pieces of a puzzle. A forensic expert finds the letters kof, dalet and yod, which seem to form a word, but she later discovers missing letters that spell out the word kadima.
This diary entry refers not to Ehud Olmert's political party, which did not even exist in 2003 at the time of the Columbia disaster, but rather to the launch of the shuttle. Ramon wrote those words on the first day in flight. He also headlined another diary entry, "Kiddush," and we see him speak to his family from space while holding a Torah rescued from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Like that relic from the Holocaust, the footage of Ramon fills us with melancholy. No one is massacred in this film, but there is a tremendous sense of loss, made all the more poignant because of the beauty of Ramon's letters to his family.
At one point in the flight, which lasted about two weeks, he wrote in Hebrew of "a halo of green light emanating from the earth." He also wrote about how the Earth appeared from space as one "borderless" sphere where we can all "try to live as one, in peace," quoting from John Lennon's song, "Imagine," one of the last tunes the former Beatle wrote before he was gunned down in 1980 by Mark David Chapman.
The documentary provides lengthy criticism of NASA for mismanagement of the shuttle program and its failure to rescue the astronauts when it became evident early on that foam on the exterior of the space shuttle had eroded and become debris.
Gliksberg said that NASA "lost many points [in Israel] after the crash and after the movie" came out. "I can not see that Israeli people will support a new pilot" in space.
He added that he was "shocked" that "two or three weeks after" the tragedy, NASA had already introduced literature with the tagline, "Focus on the Future."
"Where are they running to?" Gliksberg asked. "Hold on! Look at the past!"
As valid as is the criticism of NASA, the strongest parts of the film come from hearing Ramon's diary entries read aloud to his family and to us. When we see the reaction of his family and when we listen to this uncommonly modest and loving man write to each of his children and his wife about his devotion to them, we cannot help but be moved.
It doesn't matter much that the opening credits run against the backdrop of an amateurish rendering of the solar system, nor that the melodramatic score accompanying those opening credits seems recycled from any Hollywood thriller of the past few decades. What matters in the end is, as Lennon said, the power of imagination, the power to move beyond individual hatred and to see the one unifying globe before us.
"Columbia - The Tragic Loss" will screen at UCLA Hillel on March 14 at 7 p.m. A panel discussion will follow. For more information, call (310) 208-3081, ext. 108.