Jewish Journal

I Grieve for the Man Who’ll Never Return

by Yitzhak Ben-Horin

Posted on Feb. 6, 2003 at 7:00 pm

His face peered out this week from every television set in the United States. It was impossible to escape him. It was impossible to stop looking at him. My heart ached, a real heartache. This time, I couldn't stop the tears.

Even I'm allowed. So what if I'm a cynical journalist who, in a career spanning over 30 years, covered wars, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and grieving families? I always tried to block emotions and hide behind my mask of professionalism.

Last Saturday morning, the mask broke.

I stand next to the enormous landing strip at Cape Canaveral, exactly three minutes before the anticipated landing, waiting to hear a pair of sonic booms signifying the space shuttle Columbia's landing approach.

Standing very near me are Rona and the children. I know they're there behind the wall, but I can't see them. Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA makes sure to separate the families of the astronauts from the journalists during takeoffs and landings in the event of a disaster.

When the huge NASA digital clock races toward the zero mark, the anticipated landing time, I think of the nerve-wracking moments Rona and the children must be going through in anticipation of their happy reunion with Ilan.

They're there, in the same VIP room through which they viewed the launch 16 days ago. They held hands in excitement and roared as if they wanted to help the shuttle gather energy to make it safely to space.

"I wasn't scared even for a second. I knew everything would be OK," Rona told me an hour after the launch. "I know Ilan smiled happily in the shuttle all the way to space, and I was happy with him for the realization of his life's dream."

Only 5-year-old Noa shouted, "I lost my daddy," during the launch. During their last meeting, while hugging her father, Noa said that the shuttle would explode, and Ilan reassured her with a smile: "That only happens in movies."

Noa was just an infant when Ilan arrived with his family in the United States four and a half years ago. The family settled down in a house in the town of Clearwater, Texas, and Ilan left for his new workplace at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

I soon flew to Houston to interview the first Israeli astronaut for the daily newspaper, Ma'ariv. At our first meeting, I still saw him as Col. Ramon, the legendary fighter pilot, secret bomber of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, a brave pilot who risked his life in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Lebanon War in 1982.

During subsequent years of one-on-one interviews and many more phone conversations, however, the boundary between the journalist and the colonel fell. Behind the uniform I discovered a beautiful man, pleasant, intelligent and brave. The kind you'd like your daughter to meet. The kind you'd be proud to have as your friend.

Like everyone else, I wrote about Ramon's biography: his commitment to Shabbat and kashrut while on the space shuttle, and the personal items he took with him to space -- the little Holocaust Torah scroll, his college pennant and a sketch of Earth as imagined by a teenage Holocaust victim.

I flew back to Houston to interview Ilan several more times. While doing so, I learned several fascinating things about the U.S. space program, as well.

But even more importantly, I learned about the character of Ilan Ramon: serious, intense, always prepared and organized, diligent about doing his homework, never one to trust luck.

He arrived in Houston as an experienced fighter pilot, but quickly learned that no one expected him to fly the shuttle and bomb the moon. He needed to forget that, swallow his pride and work the many science experiments assigned to him. Ilan studied his scientific missions seriously, and especially took pride in those from his alma mater, Tel Aviv University.

Though he'd originally come to NASA as a payload specialist, he was quickly transformed into an astronaut in every sense of the word, familiar with all the systems and able to perform every possible mission. NASA people couldn't get enough of him. I couldn't either.

I'd pestered Ilan more than once with the question that bothered me most of all: If he was afraid of an accident occurring in space. At first, he tried to explain to me that after his combat experience, including two injuries, he wasn't afraid of anything anymore. When I continued my pestering, he merely smiled.

As the years went by, I learned what an optimist Ilan Ramon was. Maybe the biggest optimist I'd ever met. Before going into space, astronauts customarily prepare their wills. Ilan didn't.

I asked him about everything. I even asked him about sex in space. Ilan answered with a smile that there are only two things that aren't discussed at NASA -- sex and death.

What's the thing that scares him most of all? Disappointing the scientists in whose name he'd gone out to space. "One wrong move on my part could destroy an experiment 20 years in the making," Ilan told me.

Very few journalists came to see the Columbia land on Saturday morning. Only three Israeli journalists were there.

The launch was supposed to be the dangerous and exciting part; the landing a matter of routine. But having accompanied Ilan for four and a half years, I came to Cape Canaveral to close a personal circle with him.

At the communications center at the Kennedy Center, I follow the astronauts on the closed-circuit television monitor making final preparations. They are wearing their jumpsuits as Houston gives approval for landing. "Go," the cry of the NASA crew sounds. The time is 8:10 a.m.

We walk outside toward the landing strip. The weather is great and the visibility perfect. It was supposed to be a good conclusion to a perfect space mission.

I stand on the runway as the Columbia starts its approach to Earth in the skies above Australia. The entrance into the atmosphere is over Hawaii, the entrance to the continental United States is San Francisco Bay. It was supposed to be a very quick and smooth flight from West Coast to East Coast.

At Cape Canaveral, the emergency and evacuation crews deployed to the landing strip, including two portable labs for monitoring and sterilizing the outer envelope of the shuttle from remnants of hazardous materials. A military helicopter with a guard armed with a machine gun hovers over the runway. Medical crews stand ready to attend to the astronauts immediately upon their arrival.

Every few minutes, a Grumman G-2 jet plane flies over the runway, its characteristics similar to that of the Columbia. It tests the wind direction and the readiness of the landing strip.

Everything is ready for landing. Even the stairs are being brought to the side of the landing strip for the astronauts to descend from the parked shuttle.

On the runway, the digital NASA clock shows three minutes to landing. I wait for those twin sonic booms and hear nothing. I wait to see the shuttle glide toward the landing strip but see nothing.

The giant clock continues to race too quickly toward the zero mark, and three NASA veterans look at each other apprehensively.

No one yells. No one cries. We just stand there, shocked and hurting and realizing that something terrible has happened.

Through loudspeakers, the journalists are requested to return to the bus for the short ride to the communications room. The large clock is already showing a three-minute delay. It could happen in a regular United or American Airlines commercial flight but not at NASA.

The Columbia isn't late. She's gone. Ilan Ramon won't be coming back.

He remains in the heavens.

Yitzhak Ben-Horin is the Washington correspondent for Ma'ariv newspaper.

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