Embodying the hopes, dreams and pride of an entire nation, Ilan Ramon's death in the Columbia shuttle tragedy hit hard

By Robert Sarner, Detroit Jewish News, Feb. 7, 2003

JERUSALEM - The other day, I was working with two colleagues at the Jerusalem headquarters of Israel Television preparing the weekend edition of the nightly news in English. In mid-afternoon, I knew that my family, like millions of others in Israel, would be gathered around the TV set watching the landing of Ilan Ramon, the country's first astronaut, aboard the Columbia space shuttle.

Unlike in the United States where shuttle trips have become almost humdrum, Ramon and his mission were major news in Israel. Well before he embarked on his16-day voyage in space in mid-January, Ramon had already captured the hearts of the nation. His sense of humanity, modesty and courage had endeared him to all Israelis.

While high above the planet in the shuttle, he remained as down to earth as always in his frequent conversations with Israel via a live televised hookup. The nation was behind him every inch of the way and seemed to hang on his every word. He was part of us, we felt part of him.

A festive anticipation gripped much of the country just ahead of Ramon's return. People were eager to see the former Air Force pilot and his six American crewmates make their triumphant touchdown. It would be a moment to celebrate. Recognizing its historic significance, Israel's three main TV networks planned extensive coverage of the event. One of our rivals had Ramon's father as a studio guest to watch the landing.

I was slated to read the news that evening. For a change, instead of leading with yet another grim tale of terrorist attacks or more political turmoil, I looked forward to starting the show with an uplifting story of Israeli achievement and a successful end to a journey that had engrossed the nation for the past two weeks.

Ten minutes after when Columbia was due to land, I phoned home. It was nearly 4:30 p.m. in Jerusalem. At that point, even though the fate of the astronauts was still unknown, all signs were already pointing to trouble.

My 13-year-old daughter, Shani, answered the phone. She sounded terribly upset. "Abba, they're all dead, aren't they?!" she screamed, almost in tears. Without waiting for an answer, she cried: "Ilan Ramon isn't coming back." She then passed the phone to my wife who was equally distraught. Ramon had an especially strong impact on young Israelis, for many of whom he was a role model.

In the newsroom, what was supposed to be a straightforward story, now pulsated with unwanted drama. The first hint of a potential disaster came just after 4 p.m. by way of a one-line dispatch on the newswires. It said simply that Mission Control in Houston had lost contact with the shuttle as it made its descent.

As I read those words, I wanted to believe they did not mean what I feared they meant. Surely, it was just a delay, nothing critical. Shuttle missions never end this way.

Hours earlier, when we planned the lineup for the evening newscast, Ramon and Columbia was the obvious choice to lead with. This was the climax of a space dream that began in 1995 when former US President Bill Clinton announced that an Israeli would join a NASA team on a shuttle mission. For Israel, a tiny, isolated and besieged country, outer space represented a new frontier, with huge potential for scientific and military research. It was an ideal avenue for the country's best and brightest.

Not since John Glenn orbited the globe in 1962 or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969 has a country embraced one of its astronauts with the emotion Israel showed for Ramon. With an Israeli flag patch on his space suit for the world to see, and taking with him objects symbolizing Jewish and Israeli heritage, Ramon was far more than an astronaut for Israelis. He was a hero who embodied the hopes, dreams and pride of an entire nation. He was part of the family, and a most classy member too.

It didn't matter that the scientific experiments Ilan conducted aboard the Columbia were esoteric and far removed from the daily lives of Israelis. All they cared about was that a local boy and son of a Holocaust survivor had made it to the big leagues. Through him every Israeli had a stake in the Columbia and outer space. Through him, we all felt better about Israel.

Ramon's trip was a welcome distraction from the reality on the ground. It diverted attention away from the seemingly endless terror campaign by Palestinians; an economy in the pits and getting worse; an election that offered little hope and a possible impending war with Iraq. He gave us something to cheer about at a time when the country needed it most.

The life of Ilan Ramon and his involvement with the Columbia mission was a near-perfect story until fate ended it so suddenly, so brutally, so unjustly. With his fiery demise, Israel took another bad hit, but this time when it was least expected. Yet again the nation finds itself overcome by shock, grief and tragic loss. Today a small part of every one of us remains lost in space.

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