February 5, 2004
My Father, My Hero
Assaf Ramon recalls life with his father,Ilan Ramon.
There's a framed glass poster that hangs on the wall of Assaf Ramon's Houston bedroom wall. While the image of the smiling astronaut in the orange jumpsuit is famous, the Hebrew words inscribed at the bottom of the poster are not:
"Assaf, my oldest son, each night, look at the sky and feel me going about there. A bit far, but close. Close in my heart. I love you, my dear, and I miss you. Take care of yourself, of mother, and of your brothers. Dad."
"Dad," was Ilan Ramon, one of the seven astronauts killed Feb. 1, 2003, as the Columbia space shuttle re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and tore apart. Israel air force fighter pilot Col. Ilan Ramon inscribed those words on the poster to his eldest son the night before he left for Cape Canaveral. It was the last time his family saw him alive.
"In retrospect, I think that it was a goodbye letter," Assaf said. "That maybe it crossed his mind that something could happen to him. Because with the words 'take care of your brothers,' there is a transferring of responsibilities. On the other hand, even when he went to Florida for training, he would always say, 'Take care of your brothers.' Clearly, now, after the accident, the words have a different meaning for me."
As the oldest of four -- Tal, 13; David, 10; and Noa, 6 -- Assaf seems older than his 16 years. Well, almost 16. Ramon will turn 16 on Feb. 10, the day his father was supposed to be buried in Israel last year -- until the family postponed it a day.
"It will take me a few years until I celebrate my birthday," Assaf said. "I don't think I will be in the mood. Certainly not this year."
It's been a tough year for the Ramon's, who came to America for what went from a two-year stint to a six-year journey to support Ilan's mission to become Israel's first astronaut. It was a tough year for Assaf, a shy and disciplined boy, who spoke out for the first time, to Yedioth Aharonot, Israel's daily newspaper, about his relationship with his father, about that terrible day and his feelings of his father's legacy.
"I have no idea how my father will be remembered in history. Until now, I haven't tried to think about it at all," Assaf said. "I assume he will be remembered as the first Israeli astronaut. As a man who was a pilot and fought for Israel. Maybe also as a man who wanted the world to live in love and peace. I don't know. I think of him as a father, not as a history."
lan and Rona Ramon came to Houston with their four children in June 1998, after the Israeli air force commander decided that Ilan was the man for the prestigious mission.
About two months before the trip, the parents gathered the children for a conversation. Assaf was 10, in the fourth grade.
"Mom and dad called us downstairs to the living room," Assaf recalled. "We sat on the sofa and dad took out a picture of a space shuttle and said, 'They want me to be on one of these shuttles, so I can fly to space.' It was night, and we were little and tired, and we didn't completely understand what he was talking about. So we said, 'Wow!' and we went to sleep."
"Dad said that we would move to Houston in the summer for two years, and I thought that it could be great," he continued. "I had never been outside Israel, and I thought it would be fun, a vacation of sorts. I never knew about NASA or about the shuttle. That was the first time that I heard of NASA."
At first, Assaf found it difficult to adjust, because he didn't know English. "You came from Israel?" many students asked him. "So what are you doing here?"
Assaf explained to his classmates about his father's mission and that the family was stationed there until it was completed. "They said, that's nice, but they didn't really get excited. Honestly, they would have been more excited if my father was a football player."
Actually, Assaf started to play football when he was in the seventh grade. "I didn't want to play at first; I didn't want to become part of the [American] culture," he said.
But it amused him how seriously Americans took their sport. "I remember that one of the games ended 48 to nothing, against us." As Assaf walked over to his father, he noticed people getting really upset; some were even crying. "The closer I get to my father, I see that he's smiling. And then when I get to him, both of us burst out laughing. The Americans are crying, and the two Israelis are rolling in laughter."
America, in many ways, was good for the Ramon family.
"My whole childhood, my father had worked very hard. Here, there was this feeling of a new kind of life. Suddenly, he was home when I got back from school. In Israel, that never happened."
They took many family trips together, to Texas, Florida, Panama, Denver and Toronto. They skied in New Mexico and toured in the "most fun" place, Los Angeles.
"We all went to Universal Studios on Thanksgiving, and we got VIP passes." After the kids went on the rides, they went to look for their parents. "Suddenly, we see a crowd of people around them holding pictures of my father, and he is sitting at a table signing them. It was cool," Assaf recalled. "He looked like a celebrity."
lan Ramon's fame began way before he came to America, with his participation in the mission to destroy Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in a preemptive raid in 1981. But Assaf and his siblings didn't learn about that either until they were in America.
"About three years ago, he put in a video of the attack and showed us, 'Hey, that's me, and there is my plane. This is the target, and that's the missile.' And then he explained to us why they did the mission and why we can't talk about it with anyone."
Assaf recalled that his father didn't say too much, just that it was an important and dangerous mission. "Over time, after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the terror situation in Israel began to get out of control, I understood its importance."
Ilan Ramon never made a big deal of his accomplishments, his son said. "He never bragged ... take the running for example. He would run like nine miles every time. On our last vacation together, at a cowboy ranch in Texas, I joined him. We ran about six miles, and then when we started going back to the ranch, dad continued straight on the road and said, 'Go in, I'll do another little loop,' and he pushed himself to do another three miles. I was so done, having trouble breathing. It was only then that I understood how strong he was."
While his father was disciplined, disciplining at home was another story.
"We would all laugh at him when he tried to get angry," Assaf recalled with a smile. "It was ridiculous, because he didn't get mad often. But when Tal and I would fight amongst ourselves, or when I did something stupid, then my father would get angry. He would yell, but it didn't sound like he was really yelling. Then we would start to laugh, and he would break down and laugh."
Assaf saw in his father a confidante. "I would talk to him about everything. Even about girls."
When Assaf was in eighth grade, he started going out with a local Catholic girl named Kelly. "My father would give me advice what to buy her if she got mad at me. Once he even advised me to buy her underwear." Before the Columbia flight, Assaf's relationship with Kelly started going down hill, and Ilan saw it was driving his son crazy.
"The last time I spoke to him, on videoconference from the space shuttle, we even talked about Kelly. He said, 'This relationship is not good for you. End it.' Even from the shuttle he had advice for me. I would say that he never gave me bad advice in the romance department. I know that I was lucky, because how many fathers tell their children to buy underwear for their girlfriends?"
OR THE RAMONS, two years here turned into five, with the Columbia missions continuously postponed. But in the winter of 2003, they started to prepare, and Ilan went on more and more training missions. He also started to bring home NASA experiments with him.
"He would come back with these containers of disgusting food they prepared at NASA -- all kinds of dry steaks, repulsive pasta and vile vegetables -- and he had to eat them and afterward bring the samples of ... nu, what comes out from the food after its eaten?" Assaf said. "We would make fun of him when we were eating good food, and he had to open his containers to find an unpleasant surprise."
As the mission grew closer, Assaf said the family went about its business. "We didn't have any fears. We really, really didn't. We were totally confident and very happy. I asked him if this whole thing was dangerous. He said that people at NASA check everything they do three or four times, and they don't take any risks. You could say that he was also very confident. He believed in NASA completely."
The last time Assaf saw his father in person, before he went into isolation for the mission, was on Jan. 9, 2003. "It was a regular day. I came home from school, did my homework, ate dinner with the whole family and dad organized our stuff. I came downstairs to talk to him a bit. Afterward he took these giant posters with his picture of him dressed in his orange space suit, put them on the bed, and he wrote something personal on the poster to each one of us. He gave me a small hug and gave me the poster."
After they said goodbye, Assaf went into the house and drank some water. "I didn't cry, but I felt a bit choked up, like there was something caught in my throat. And then I said to myself, 'Why am I getting worked up? I'll see him again in less than a month.'"
few days before takeoff, the Ramons went to Cape Canaveral. "When you see the awesome power of the ship and the missiles around it, it's a little scary. We all cried, a cry of happiness, because it was very moving. All in all, we had waited for this moment for five years. At takeoff, [my sister] Noa said, 'I lost my father,' and everyone talked about it afterward. I think it was just something she said, a little girl without any real meaning. She saw the smoke and the fire and apparently was afraid."
After takeoff, they went back to Houston, and gathered every day in front of the television to watch the NASA station. "In general, the experiments were somewhat boring, but it was moving to see the astronauts talking amongst themselves. On the videoconference, dad would do tricks with M&Ms," Assaf said.
Assaf admired his father's decision to keep kosher and observe Shabbat in space. "Dad is not a religious man, but I think it was a nice decision that honors the entire Jewish people."
On Friday, Jan. 31, the day before the shuttle was scheduled to land, the Ramons returned to Cape Canaveral.
"We stayed at the hotel, we played soccer and tennis, we passed the time," Assaf said. After watching his father on the NASA channel, he was too excited to sleep. "That night, I saw how the shuttle was coming closer to Earth, and I thought that my father was inside, and pretty soon he would be here. It was clear to me that he was coming."
They got up the next morning at 7 a.m. and drove to the landing zone and went upstairs to watch.
"We waited and waited for the sonic boom. There was a clock running backward, and a man with a microphone speaking. I remember that five minutes before the landing, someone said that they lost contact with the shuttle. I said, 'Big deal. Why do you need contact? They should just land the shuttle alone, and that's all.' It didn't seem like they were worried."
"Three minutes before the clock got to zero, a sonic boom was supposed to sound, to indicate that the shuttle pierced the atmosphere. I'm looking at the clock, and I see it go down to a minute and to continue to tick away. And then I heard a noise."
Assaf can't exactly explain the noise, but when he asked if it was the sonic boom, he was told that it wasn't. "Meanwhile the clock had struck zero, and still they weren't there."
"And then two minutes after zero they started to take us out; they took us back to headquarters. They just said: 'Come with us.'"
"The NASA people didn't look worried. But on the way to the car, I saw one of the friends of one of the astronauts crying. I said to myself, 'What -- is he stupid? What's he crying about? What's he all hysterical about?' And in the car, I saw that my mother was also very sad and worried. I told her, 'Don't worry. Worst comes to worse, they'll land at a different place.'"
"At that point, I really thought they were just going to land in a different place, and that's why they were taking us to watch the landing on the video. But I think at that point, my mom understood that that was it. That it was over."
Assaf didn't. He didn't even consider the possibility of an accident at landing, because the only time he was worried was at takeoff, and that had passed -- seemingly without a hitch.
The family drove five minutes to headquarters and went up in an elevator into a room with some families and a few senior astronauts and waited for about 20 minutes.
"Then someone from NASA entered, closed the door and introduced himself. He said, 'This is the most difficult task I have ever had to do ever in my life.'"
"And I thought to myself, 'It can't be that they'll tell me that my father was killed. It can't be. It can't be.' But I was worried. And then he took a breath, and there was complete silence in the room. He said, 'We lost contact with the shuttle over Texas. It disintegrated. There is not a great chance of finding survivors.'"
"I remember that I got angry, and I said again, 'It can't be.' I didn't believe it. And my leg started to tremble uncontrollably. I wasn't ready to accept it."
"Some of the children started to cry hysterically at this point, and Tal and David came to sit with us. Mom was sitting next to me, and she had started to cry when the man entered. That's why she didn't hear exactly what he said. An astronaut sitting nearby repeated the NASA man's words. That's when I broke down."
That same day, the Ramons packed up and returned to Houston. "Later I saw on TV the footage of the shuttle exploding in the air," Assaf said. "And then I finally understood that dad is gone."
he extensive investigation of the Columbia disaster showed a long line of failures within NASA. The 248-page report concluded that the piece of debris that hit the shuttle's left side on takeoff caused the shuttle to explode on reentry to Earth. The report also said that NASA had eight different opportunities to prevent the disaster.
"We read about all the chances that NASA had to deal with the mishaps, and they ignored it," Assaf said. "It doesn't sound like NASA, and really lowers their image in my eyes. We always looked to NASA as a very secure place, and this report shows that they make a joke of the work."
"They saw the foam that hit the shuttle already on takeoff, and they could have said, 'Something's not right, go back and check it.' I'm very disappointed, and I am sure that dad, as much as he loved NASA, would have viewed this whole thing from the outside and would have also been severely disappointed."
Despite everything, Assaf is not upset his father was an astronaut. "I am proud," he said. But he thinks about his father every day.
"I am trying to pass the time," he said. "You cannot avoid sadness. Every day I think about dad and the accident, and all the things that could have happened and didn't. I don't cry much, but sometimes I break down. It's like a roller coaster: Some times there are better, happier days, and some times there are days that are not so pleasant."
But, he said, that the last year has matured him, that his father's death has given him a new perspective on life, and he has learned not to take things for granted. "I look at my friends now, how they relate to their own parents. So if my friend yells at his mother or father, I get upset. They don't understand it like I do. That it's all temporary. "
ow, one year later, the Ramons are preparing to return to Israel. In August, they will go to a house that is being built for them in Ramat Chen. "I think it's time," Assaf said, adding that he knows it will be hard at first, because he will feel like a new immigrant.
"On the other hand, my mother says that in Israel there is a better community. Here, sometimes, it's boring for me. You need a car to go everywhere, and there is a certain age for drinking, and there's also a lot of drugs among the kids. I am ready to live in Israel, again."
For his 16th birthday, a friend of Ilan's gave Assaf flying lessons in a Cessna. Assaf is practicing to be a pilot in the Israeli air force, like his father.
"After the accident it came to me: I very much want to be an astronaut," Assaf said. "I want to share with him what he went through and to know how he felt. I believe that that's how I'll feel closer to him.
The 16-year-old, who has matured a lifetime in this last year, added: "Who knows, maybe one day [Israel] will send me."