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Israel’s First Astronaut: A Tale of Tragedy and Miracle

The unforgettable legacy of a national icon and his son.

by
P. David Hornik

Bio

June 30, 2013 - 7:00 am

PJ-Ramon-2a

Ilan Ramon was born in Ramat Gan, a neighboring town of Tel Aviv, in 1954 when the state of Israel itself was only six years old. As was typical of many great Israeli fighters of that generation, he was a son of Holocaust refugees and survivors. His father and his family had fled Nazi Germany in 1935. His mother and grandmother were from Poland and were survivors of Auschwitz.

Ilan Ramon had intellectual gifts, eventually earning academic degrees in electronics and computer engineering, but as a young man he chose to devote his life to his country’s defense. In 1974, at age 20, he graduated as a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force. Over the next seven years he spent thousands of hours training on Mirage-III and F-16 warplanes and also took part in operations.

On June 7, 1981, Ramon was the youngest of eight pilots to take part in Israel’s strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, which Israel’s top decision-makers saw as posing an existential threat. The raid was universally pilloried; even the United States, then led by the Reagan administration that was generally (but not necessarily) friendly toward Israel, voted along with the Security Council to condemn the operation. The U.S. also penalized Israel by delaying a shipment of aircraft, and by withholding vital intelligence information for years.

Exactly ten years after the strike, in June 1991, after the U.S. had successfully fought Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney visited Israel and

gave Major General David Ivry, then commander of the Israeli Air Force, a satellite photograph of the destroyed reactor. On the photograph, Cheney wrote, “For General David Ivri, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”

 But the remarkable aspects of the raid went beyond the political ramifications.

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All Comments   (7)
All Comments   (7)
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Thank you for this essay, for allowing us to feel the wonder and beauty of flight while sitting at a desk. As a pilot I would like to humbly point out, there is no such thing as a routine training mission.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I recall listening anxiously to FM radio for the shuttle re-entry report (I was following the story of Ramon)...And the first reports that something was amiss came from Hawaii. It was so shocking, so horrific, so sudden, I didn't want to believe it.
Thank you for this article (and for the author noting all the strange, if not miraculous, coincidences).
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Inspirational. Thank you for this article.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Beautiful piece; thanks.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks to you!
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
"even the United States, then led by the Reagan administration that was generally (but not necessarily) friendly toward Israel, voted along with the Security Council to condemn the operation. The U.S. also penalized Israel by delaying a shipment of aircraft, and by withholding vital intelligence information for years."

Reagan indeed deferred to the almost wall-to-wall insistence by his advisors that Israel be sanctioned, but he could hardly conceal his admiration for Israel's success. In Roger Claire's "Raid on the Sun" he describes Reagan reviewing satellite images of the aftermath. "Okay, yeah, yeah, I see," the president said, referring to the putatively damning evidence of Israel's perfidy, "But what a terrific piece of bombing." (p. 221)

Clair also notes that "By September 1, 1981, the sale of F-16s to Israel was quietly resumed", though restrictions on access to KH-11 surveillance satellites, originally imposed by Carter, were "firmly back in place". And how did Israel originally get hold of those F-16s? They were intended for the Shah's Iran, but after the Islamic Revolution the sale was cancelled, and the US found a willing buyer in Israel. (Note that Obama chose *not* to cancel a more recent sale of F-16s to now Muslim Brotherhood-run Egypt.)
42 weeks ago
42 weeks ago Link To Comment
Reagan's Admin shows that no matter how pro-Israel a President might be at heart, there are always conflicting impulses. The Kissinger types refer to these as 'strategic interests'; they have afflicted (I like that word here) similar Admins (Bush's/was there another?). I think that, even with a President like Bush who had affinities for Israel, there is also this belief that Israel should clear even vital actions first with Washington. So it was reported recently that Bush was furious with Olmert for Syria reactor strike...if that is true or not, I don't know. Then you have Obama (okay, you can keep him)..
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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