Anyone growing up in the age of Russia’s Sputnik, when America’s space program literally took off as well, was fascinated with space travel and all that NASA developed in the next decades. Who can forget the day man first walked on the moon!  For me, Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon’s surface on July 21, 1969 is ingrained in my memory, taking  place on my birthday! In the past 20 years, Americans have become blasé about space travel, the “WE HAVE LIFTOFF” announcements occasionally  blaring from the tv no longer causes us to stop in our tracks and stare in wonderment. Israel’s interest in space exploration grew with its first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

Born in Ramat Gan in 1954, this star pupil was hooked on flying early in his life. A combat pilot in the Israeli Air Force, he fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. A natural pilot who received his training in Utah, he went on to fight in the mission, Operation Peace For the Galilee [the Lebanon War] in 1982. His track record made him a natural choice for selection and training as Israel’s first astronaut; he trained four years with Columbia’s crew in Texas. Though he was not very religious, he took this ‘first’ for Israel – an Israeli astronaut!! – very seriously, representing all Jews and Israelis. By the time of the Columbia mission, Ilan and Rona were the parents of four children.

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Young Ilan, sketch by Petr Ginz, Ilan Ramon’s official photo… Photo credit: Wikipedia

What did the first Israeli astronaut eat in orbit? Why – Kosher food of course!
Ilan Ramon often expressed the thought that he saw his trip into space as a mission. “I will represent the entire Jewish people,” he would say. As a representative of the Jewish people he wanted to do everything in the very best possible way Jewishly, including keeping Shabbat and eating only kosher food. The NASA staff shrugged their shoulders at the Jewish astronaut’s strange request but Ilan did not give up easily and a solution was found. NASA contacted My Own Meals, a company in Deerfield, Ill. that sells certified kosher food in “thermo-stabilized” sealed pouches for campers. Keeping Shabbat was also a challenge.  A day/night cycle in orbit is 90 minutes long, which means that a week lasts a mere ten and a half hours from start to finish! Would Ilan need to keep Shabbat every half day? Some of the world’s leading rabbinic authorities were consulted. They decided that he would keep the Shabbat times of his place of departure – Cape Canaveral.

What did he bring along for the flight?

Ilan decided to bring objects into space that he believed “emphasized the unity of the people of Israel and the Jewish communities around the world.” Included among the items were a menorah, a pocket size Bible on microfiche film, and soil from Israel. Ilan’s mother, influenced additional artifacts Ilan chose to take on his mission. One was a pencil drawing of what the earth might look like from the moon, created by a 14 year old, Petr Ginz, who died in Auschwitz; a mezuzah made by an Israeli artist whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors was another; a tiny Torah scroll with its own Holocaust history was the third Holocaust related item Ilan carried onboard.

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Columbia Mission – miniature Torah Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Torah had a particular and personal background. Ilan knew Dr. Joachim Joseph, scientist and professor of physics in Israel. His friends and colleagues affectionately called him “Yoya.” Once, as a guest in Yoya’s home, Ilan saw a miniature handwritten Torah scroll, only 4 inches tall. Yoya told him that he had received it from Rabbi Simon Dasberg, of Groningen, Holland, who perished in the Holocaust. They were inmates together in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Yoya was just turning thirteen, and Rabbi Dasberg brought out the tiny Torah scroll and offered to teach him his Bar Mitzvah parasha. Though hungry, cold and exhausted after many hours of slave labor, the two studied together at night. In the early hours of the morning on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, the men secretly held a service, where Yoya chanted his Torah portion. Outside the window, his mother had silently slipped out from the women’s camp to hear her son become Bar Mitzvah.That Torah scroll was given to Ilan Ramon so that he could tell the story. On January 21st, in an emotional news conference from the space mission Ilan held up the Torah, repeated its history and spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust and the year and a half that his own mother spent in Auschwitz.

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Columbia Crew: David Brown, commander Rick Husband, mission specialist Laurel Clark, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist Michael Anderson, pilot William McCool, and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon. Photocredit: Wikipedia

During the mission in space, from January 16, 2003, liftoff- until that terrible day, Shabbat, February 1, 2003, Ilan Ramon and his crewmates completed many amazing experiments in space. But as we know, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere 16 minutes prior to its scheduled landing, taking all its inhabitants including the miniature Torah and the other artifacts. Rabbi Konikov, CHABAD rabbi in Florida, had gotten to know Ilan Ramon, and says of that day – “Shabbat passed in a surreal blur of sorrow.”

The story of a tiny Holocaust Torah onboard the Columbia has a second part, though that original Torah is gone. Like Ilan Ramon’s mother, Henry Fenichel, Professor Emeritus of physics at the University of Cincinnati was also a child survivor and had a Torah with him in a concentration camp. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio is a Jewish Federation’s ‘partner city’ to Netanya in Israel. Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow, dialogued with Prof. Fenichel. As a result of their conversation, he allowed his small Torah scroll given to him by an elderly cousin who escaped Nazi Germany, to be carried into space aboard the Atlantis Shuttle mission in 2006. Fenichel’s Torah was almost identical to Ramon’s. Fenichel said, “The Torah represents the survival of the Jewish People, the ability to rise from the depth of despair in the Holocaust and reach for the stars. It symbolizes a hopeful promise for a new beginnings and shining example of respect between cultures and religions.” Though The Columbia ended in tragedy, The Atlantis returned safely to Earth on Sept 21, 2006, fittingly, the eve of the Jewish New Year.

Ilan Ramon’s Legacy – for our children and grandchildren!

Interest in space exploration continues as young Israeli students and scientists remain inspired by Ilan Ramon. the Israel Space Agency is a governmental body, part of Israel’s Ministry of Science and Technology, that coordinates all Israeli space research programs with scientific and commercial goals. Founded in 1983, it replaced the National Committee for Space Research which was established in 1960 to set up the infrastructure required for space missions. This past summer in 2015, the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) was held in Jerusalem; despite the tense situation in Israel, the media noted that the conference  took place very successfully, without cancellations.

As recently as January 2016we read in the news that a 13 year old Israeli girl, Roni Oron, is the winner of the “Satellite Is Born” award from the Israel Space Agency. She developed BioSat “to solve a problem for astronauts trying to prove that life on Mars is possible.” The spirit of Roni Oron and other youth like her, is Ilan Ramon’s legacy! The latest interest in space continues as can be witnessed with the huge interest in the current film, The Martian, perhaps spurred on by the finding of salty water on Mars, indicating the real possibility that life could be sustained on the red planet.

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Photo credit: Amazon

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photo credit: Amazon

At a time when Jewish children need Jewish heroes beyond those in sports, Ilan Ramon remains a giant hero, a Jewish ‘super-hero!’ Although it’s been 13 years since the announcement on February 1, 2003, by President George W. Bush, “Columbia is lost; there are no survivors,” the yearning for space exploration and science remains palpable among Israelis. Books and biographies for children about Ilan Ramon make this hero stay alive. Among the notables: Keeping the Promise, by Tami Lehman Wilzig; Ilan Ramon: Israel’s First Astronaut, by Tanya Lee Stone; Reach For the Stars, by Sylvia Rouss; Ilan Ramon: Israel’s Space Hero, by Barbara Sofer, Journey of Hope, by Alan Abbey.

The legacy of Ilan Ramon and all his fellow crew members lives on; the memorial service conducted by Rabbi Zvi Konikov can be seen in this video. In addition, an inspiring documentary film exists that details the life mission of Col. Ilan Ramon, titled Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope suitable for students, ten years and older; there is even an accompanying Education guide.

Israel’s new international airport, Ramon Airport,  is scheduled to open in 2017. Named for both Ilan Ramon, and his son Assaf, an Israeli Air Force pilot who tragically died in a training accident in 2009, is located in Timna, just 19 km north of Eilat. It is state of the art, features magnificent design, and points to the honor and special place astronaut, Ilan Ramon, holds in both the history and future of modern Israel.

Back in 2003, which seems a lifetime ago, Ilan’s final observations during the Columbia mission come from a letter he wrote to [then] Israel’s President Moshe Katzav on day 11, on January 26th. “From space, I could easily spot Jerusalem, the capital, and while looking at Jerusalem, I prayed one short prayer, Shema Yisrael. From space our world looks as one entity with no borders. Let’s work for peace and a better life for everyone on Earth.”

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO… 

  • January 26, 2003 – the day Ilan Ramon told us he could spot Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, from space. That was the day a Jewish astronaut recited the Shema from outer space.
  • February 1, 2003– Ilan Ramon, we will remember you!

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