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


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.