Monday, 20 January 2014

Ilan Ramon~11th Anniversary of His Death

Eleven years ago this month, after a sixteen day mission, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry to earth~killing all seven astronauts on board. For the world it was an indescribable tragedy~for tiny Israel, it was if our hearts had been ripped out.

On board the Space Shuttle Columbia was one of Israel's brightest stars, Colonel Ilan Ramon.

In the documentary ("Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope" directed by Dan Cohen), Cohen describes Israel's first (and only) astronaut, as:

"a man used to rising to the occasion...from the moment he arrived in Houston until he lifted off, Ramon went through a transformational change. He came to understand who he was and what he represented”

The program (see below) aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Ilan Ramon’s death.

Israel Air Force (IAF) Colonel Ilan Ramon (20 June 1954~01 February 2003) was an engineer (electronics and computers), a pilot, a husband and father of four children. His father fled nazi Germany in 1935, while his Polish mother and grandmother were survivors of Auschwitz. Serving as a combat pilot, he fought in the Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon War, and was the youngest participant (flying in the last, and most dangerous position) in the 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.

Ramon was chosen to be a NASA astronaut in 1997 and in 1998, he began the rigorous, five-year training program. His training for the Columbia mission was carried out at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Officially designated as a payload specialist, Ramon was described by Commander Mike Anderson as “fully integrated with the crew.” Ilan was the only non-American to receive the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor (awarded posthumously).

"Although he was a "secular" Jew, Ramon said that he considered himself to be "the representative of all Jews and Israelis". He recognized the importance of maintaining Jewish identity and cultivating unity. Always mindful of his past, he placed a great importance on the history of the Jewish people, and the impact of the fact that he~the child of a Holocaust survivor~was the first Israeli astronaut.

He was the first astronaut to ask for "Kosher" food for the trip and even consulted a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi on "Observing Shabbat in Space" (the period between sunrises in orbit is approximately 90 minutes).
Even the personal items he took with him into space were a thoughtful reflection of his heritage, and the effect that his choices would have on future generations.

A pencil sketch, "Moon Landscape", drawn in the Terezín concentration camp by 14-year-old Petr Ginz (who later died in Auschwitz) was given to him by Yad Vashem.

Items he took included a barbed wire Mezuzah by artist Aimee Golant commissioned by the 1939 Club~a group of Holocaust survivors and their families, a microfiche copy of the Torah given to him by the president of Israel, a silver Kiddush cup, a dollar of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and from Prof. Yehoyachin Yosef, a Bergen Belsen survivor, he had a miniature Torah scroll from the Holocaust~no larger than the palm of your hand.

Perhaps the most important thing he took into space was the pride and hopes of the Nation of Israel and Jewish people around the world.

On Erev Shabbat he used the silver Kiddush cup to sanctify the day~as he held the cup in his hand he recited the blessing for Kiddush from space, high above the earth.

As as he passed over Jerusalem, he recited the words known by every Jew (and the last to be said before death) the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9):
                      Hear, Oh Israel, the Lrd is our Gd, the Lrd is One
Among the personal items that Ramon brought with him, the miniature Torah scroll saved from the Holocaust is especially well remembered:

The scroll had been given to a boy who celebrated his bar mitzvah trapped in the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The rabbi who had smuggled the Torah into the camp did not survive; but the boy, the scroll~and the rabbi’s instruction to tell the world what had happened in that place, and the boy’s promise~did.

The bar mitzvah boy was Dr. Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, a physicist and the lead Israeli scientist supporting Ilan Ramon on the ground. It was from Dr. Joseph that Ilan Ramon learned the story of the scroll. As the son of an Auschwitz survivor, Ilan Ramon was touched deeply by the history of the scroll and asked permission to take the miniature Torah with him. It was granted, and as the space shuttle passed over Israel, Ilan spoke to the Prime Minister of Israel, showing him the tiny parchment and told the story of how it had risen “From the Depths of Hell~Rose to the Heights of Space.”

Making the film of the Columbia tragedy was filled with emotional and financial financial issues, and took a full ten years to complete. Great care was taken to insure the historical accuracy of the documentary, including calling in Dr. Alex Grobman, a historical consultant, to verify the story of the Bar Mitzvah in Bergen-Belson. He did confirm that there actually was a Torah scroll at the ceremony.

Click to Enlarge
From its launch on 16 January 2013, Space Shuttle Columbia's flight was a success during its sixteen day mission. It was only as the crew prepared for landing and began the re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, that the Columbia disintegrated.

At the crash site, people spent days searching to recover the remains of the seven astronauts. Among the few objects that survived were a helmet, and thirty-seven pages of Ilan Ramon's personal diary~written with a special space pen. They were recovered and preserved during a lengthy restoration process at the Israel Museum's paper conservation laboratory. Ramon's weathered and faded handwriting was then deciphered at the documents laboratory of the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science. The page to the left is one of two pages on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (on loan from Rona Ramon).

For Jews and non-Jews alike, this program, "Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope" is full of emotion. As an Israeli, my heart was bursting with pride at the progress our tiny country has made in such a short time. As a Jew I sobbed for the loss of one of our finest at such a young age. I leave you with a quote written by Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post, written on 01 February 2003:

Our hearts go out to his family members. 
But we can only pray that they will take comfort
in the fact that in his life,
their Ilan
saved both the life and the spirit of his country.

This movie, "Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope" is a personal insight to the thoughts of the shuttle crew, their friends, family and colleagues, and most of all an insight into the man who was Ilan Ramon. I strongly recommend it to everyone.

 * If you can not view the video below, do click on this link

From the Depths of Hell to the Heights of Space~You'll Need Tissues for This One

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