We all remember that moment on Febuary 1st, 2003, when we realized our hero in space, Ilan Ramon, would not return. On that day, 11 years ago, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana as it reentered Earth's atmosphere at the end of a 15 day and 22 hour mission in space. On that day, we lost a hero, a role model, a husband and a father.
On February 1st, 2003, at 16:30 pm, my family and I were sitting in the car on our way to visit long distance family members. This was supposed to be a big day: Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut and an old family friend of ours, was supposed to land at Cape Canaveral, along with six fellow astronauts.
Ilan Ramon's voyage to space was the most talked about topic in the Israeli media. We all followed Ilan and his family from the moment of the takeoff, through his videos from space to the romantic song his wife dedicated to him from millions of miles away. We all saw him as a symbol of Israeli achievement. He was the one we all believed in--the one we were all united in admiring.
We all waited for February 1st, when Ramon would step out of the space shuttle, wave to the cheering crowd, hug his wife and kids and return home a hero. Even while on the road, we did not want to miss the historic moment, and my father turned on the radio where the landing was recorded and broadcast.
I will never forget that moment when we realized something went wrong. I remember my mother starting to cry, and my father catching his breath. I remember asking what happened, and slowly gaining the understanding that Ilan Ramon would not step outside of the shuttle, and wouldn't be reunited with his family.
I don't remember Ilan very well. I grew up with his son, Tal, as both families lived in a family-residence next to an Air Force base. Both our dads were officers in the Air Force, and worked together. Tal and I were good friends in kindergarten, and our ways separated when my family and I moved back to the city when I was six. A few years later, I remember my dad asking me if I remember Tal's father, and telling me that he might become an astronaut.
Since astronomy was my main interest at that time, my dad said that maybe someday I could meet with Ilan and he would tell me all about space. In the meantime, the Ramon’s moved to the States, and both families drifted apart. But even though I haven't spoken to Tal in years, when Columbia had left the atmosphere, I bragged to the entire school that the father of one of my closest childhood friends was up there…
When Ilan Ramon boarded the Columbia, he had become an Israeli hero, a symbol of success beyond imagination. February 1st, 2003, was meant to become a historic day for the state of Israel. That day was meant to be written as the day when Israel stepped out of its borders and left a mark on history.
That day did become a historic day, but one we wish we could erase. In that moment when the countdown ended, and the clock started counting back up, that day turned from a day of excitement into a day of grief.
It's been eleven years now, and Ilan Ramon's smile is still in our hearts. Ramon, and the six other astronauts that assembled the Columbia team are all heroes. They will always be a symbol of achievement beyond any imagination, a symbol of national and worldwide pride, and an inspiration. May they all rest in peace.