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


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.