via Google

via Google

When I opened up Google this morning, I saw a refreshing break from the barrage of World Cup related Google doodles. As the daily doodle is based on region, today shows an astronaut, writing in his diary while observing space from his Google-shaped windows. The sleeve of his spacesuit bears an Israeli flag.

Today would have been Col. Ilan Ramon’s 60th birthday. In 2003, he perished along with six other astronauts, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon it’s re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over Texas.

My younger brother once said that all the problems of the world could be solved by space exploration. I never understood what he meant until July 2011, when my family and I went to see the launching of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, NASA’s final shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

We arrived early, and made a spot for ourselves in a clearing along the shore of Cape Canaveral. Dawn spilled across the sky, reflecting in the water as we waited. As the sun rose, we could see the launch pad across the water. There was magic in the air that morning, and I felt as though the Universe itself was within my reach. As the minutes and hours passed, more viewers showed up. We were now sharing out little clearing on the shore with a family, a soldier on leave, a hoard of mosquitoes, and a few moon-gazing hopefuls with dreams as big as space itself.

We could see the shuttle. It glistened in the morning light as it aimed into the abyss, awaiting it’s final mission. And then it began. I remember the thrill of the countdown as we watched, eyes glued across the water, while massive clouds of smoke erupted from the boosters. Within seconds, there was an enormous roar as the rocket woke and lifted off. We were children, our eyes gazing upward, dreaming of Mars. We shouted and cheered as it soared impossibly fast, and impossibly high. The echo of it’s roar moved through the water, and through us. I felt it move, an actual vibration of sound, as it stretched it’s arms and shook us. “Look,” it seemed to cry. “Look at what we can do, and yet, look at how small we really are.” I watched as the Shuttle climbed across the sky, eventually disappearing as it left our atmosphere. I stood, speechless, gazing at the puff of smoke that it left behind. The roar was right. Suddenly, the world had become remarkably small. I wondered what the astronauts were thinking as they gazed down to the planet they had just left. As the only home that humanity has ever known became nothing more than a pale, blue dot.

Col. Ramon was the first Israeli to venture into space. He requested a kosher menu, in order to represent Israel and the Jewish people. He spoke to Rabbis about the strange technicalities of observing Shabbat in space. In his final interview before leaving Earth, he said he hoped to do “something traditional for Friday night–for Erev Shabbat. Like maybe a kiddush.”

The son of  Holocaust survivors, Col. Ramon asked Yad Vashem, to provide him with something symbolic of the Holocaust to bring with him. He brought a sketch by Petr Ginz, called “Moon Landscape,” drawn while the teen was in Theresienstadt. It depicted a view of Earth from the moon, as Ginz imagined it. The boy was killed in Auschwitz. “It’s a very symbolic act that I can take his drawing, although he is physically not with us. But his spirit will be with us, and with me, in space.” 

The very idea of space travel somehow puts life in perspective. Before his journey to space, Col. Ramon said that “Wherever you take yourself in nature, you get to think a lot about what we, as a human being, are doing here. What is important? What is not important?”  I will never forget looking out across Cape Canaveral to watch the Atlantis soar, as the world and all my problems shrunk into a speck of dust. Col. Ramon, along with all the other men and women who have ventured into space have shown that our world is nothing but a dot. A speck, among an infinite amount specks. They have opened the door to infinity, and yet, still–we fight. We wage war. The search for Israel’s three teens has been going strong for a full week now. People are suffering all over the world, and often, it is suffering inflicted on man, by man. When will the world learn to live together?

Col. Ramon said that “There is no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying in space. We are all human beings, and I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people.”