Israel’s First Astronaut: A Tale of Tragedy and Miracle
The unforgettable legacy of a national icon and his son.
June 30, 2013 - 7:00 am
It’s been ten years and a few months since the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. After two weeks of orbiting the earth at an altitude of hundreds of miles, on February 1, 2003, the Columbia disintegrated while reentering the atmosphere with all of 16 minutes left to the flight. All seven crew members were killed, their remains eventually found in the East Texas county of Sabine.
One of the crew members was Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. For Israelis the event was particularly devastating. It came while the Second Intifada—a five-year onslaught of suicide bombings and other terror attacks—was in force. The images of Ramon’s airborne journey were universally felt to be somehow redemptive, a reminder of our great achievements and great potentials during the pain and grief of those years.
Like millions of other Israelis, I and my son were watching TV, awaiting the Columbia’s triumphant return, when the incredible news started to filter in—slowly and cautiously at first, still leaving hope that things would somehow be OK. When it became clear that what was feared and implied was what had actually happened, that Ilan Ramon and the others were all dead, a few million people already suffering the psychological corrosions of an “intifada” were left dumbstruck and bewildered.
But it wasn’t all. Six years later, on September 13, 2009, Asaf Ramon—son of Ilan and Rona, oldest of four children—died in a rare training accident as a pilot in the Israeli air force. Twenty-one at the time, Asaf’s ambition was to be a great fighter pilot—as his father, Ilan Ramon, had been before becoming an astronaut.
While there is no point trying to “make sense” of such a story, it has many other striking aspects that are worth telling.
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.
In 2007 Lieutenant Colonel Ze’ev Raz, who was the leader of the eight-man attack force that included Ilan Ramon, told a journalist:
[N]one of us thought—not even in the IDF General Staff—that we would all come back alive…. Maybe some of us would come back, but we were sure there was no way that everyone would. So as far as each of us, individually, was concerned, it was our last day on earth.
…And yet things happened there that to this day we have no explanation for. For instance, according to all calculations the Iraqi radar systems were supposed to have spotted us at least 15 minutes before the bombing despite the fact that we flew at very low altitude.… Of course it was a miracle. How is it possible that even after we bombed the reactor not one plane tried to down us?
I’ll tell you something else: It takes an hour and a half to get back from Iraq to Israel and we were flying 40,000 feet above the ground. The General Staff originally wanted us to carry out the bombing after sunset so it would be harder for the Iraqis to attack us on the way back. But I was opposed to that. I thought if we did the bombing after sunset there wouldn’t be enough light and our planes would miss their target—so I insisted that the bombing take place before sunset.
As a result, we flew back as the sun was setting. But since the planes were traveling at such a fast speed, the sun was out all the time and never set. It was as though it remained standing in the middle of the horizon.
At that time we pilots all radioed each other reciting the same exact biblical verse—Joshua 10:12: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the Valley of Ayalon….”
They were referring to Joshua’s behest that the natural powers come to a halt so that the Israelites could triumph in battle.
During the decade and a half after Osirak, Ramon — in between studies for his degrees at Tel Aviv University — kept rising through the ranks of the Israeli air force, logging thousands of hours of flight time on A-4, Mirage III-C, F-4, and F-16 jets. In 1994 he was promoted to colonel and appointed head of weapons development and acquisition.
In 1997 he was chosen to be Israel’s first astronaut, and in July 1998 he began his training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
From January 16 to February 1, 2003, aboard the Columbia—whose crew carried out a total of 80 experiments—Ramon did experimental work with a multispectral camera for measuring small dust particles (or dust aerosols) over the Mediterranean and the Saharan coast of the Atlantic.
But Ramon saw the flight as something more than a triumph of technology and science. As he said in an interview: “I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis.” As he told the Israeli prime minister from the Columbia itself:
I think it is very, very important to preserve our historical tradition, and I mean historical and religious traditions.
Though considered a secular Jew in Israeli terms, Ramon took care to ensure that both the Jewish people and their traditions were represented on the space flight. He carried with him a copy of the above pencil sketch, “Moon Landscape” by Petr Ginz—a 16-year-old Czech Jewish boy who died at Auschwitz in 1944. Ramon also took with him a microfiche copy of the Torah—and a miniature Torah scroll that had been rescued from the Holocaust and given him by a survivor of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
Ramon also did his best to observe Jewish practices in the space shuttle. He was the first astronaut ever to request kosher food, and he consulted with a rabbi on how to keep the Sabbath—complicated by the fact that in space sunrises occur about every 90 minutes. And when the shuttle passed over Jerusalem far below, Ramon would recite the Shema Yisrael prayer.
When the Columbia broke apart on that February 1, the copy of “Moon Landscape” was lost—on what would have been Petr Ginz’s 75th birthday. But — miraculously — not all the precious items Ramon had with him were lost.
Two months after the crash, 37 mostly-intact pages of Ramon’s diary were discovered, crumpled and wet, in a field near Palestine, Texas. Police scientists labored over the pages for four years and were able to decipher 80 percent of what Ramon had written there in Hebrew with a NASA space pen and a pencil.
In 2009 some pages of the diary were displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with the approval of Rona, Ramon’s wife. Yigal Zalmona, curator at the museum, said:
The diary survived extreme heat in the explosion, extreme atmospheric cold, and then was attacked by microorganisms and insects. It’s almost a miracle that it survived—it’s incredible. There is no rational explanation for how it was recovered when most of the shuttle was not.
On the sixth day of the mission Ramon wrote: “Today is maybe the first day that I really feel like I live in space. I turned out to be a man who lives and works in space, just like in the movies.”
At another point he wrote: “I have a beautiful view of a mighty lightning storm over India, Tibet, Nepal and Japan.”
The restored parts of the diary also include the Kiddush, the Sabbath blessing for wine. Ramon had written it into the diary so he could recite it during his space Sabbaths.
Although Asaf Ramon lived much of his young life in the United States while his father was training for the space mission, he had no doubt where he wanted his home to be. As he wrote in his diary:
Why Israel? It’s obvious, I can’t explain it, it’s just a part of me. Who could live anywhere else? I am in love with this Israel—the family, the people, the culture, the music, the sea, the nature, the silence, the noise, the food, the smells…it is a place like no other…. Wow, this is going to be my life. And all this without my father.
Asaf was 15 when his father was killed; he promised more than once that he would follow in his footsteps as a pilot and possibly even an astronaut. And indeed, like his father, he graduated the Israeli air force’s grueling flight-cadets’ course with honors and became an F-16 pilot. On that day in September 2009, he was on a routine training flight when his plane crashed into the Hebron Mountains.
Today Ilan Ramon is a national icon in Israel, with dozens of schools and other institutions named after him. The pair of tragedies led Rona Ramon, widow of Ilan and mother of Asaf, to earn an MA in holistic health, and she now works as a grief counselor. She also works at the Ramon Foundation, which was set up in Ilan and Asaf’s honor and promotes excellence in space exploration, science, and technology. Another Ramon son is now a combat soldier in the Israeli army.
The story of Ilan and Asaf, with its mix of huge achievement, elements of the providential, and seeming incomprehensible cruelty of fate, retains a bewildering effect and is perhaps illegible. Its lasting impact, though, is to strengthen rather than weaken.