“The shuttle blew up. It blew up over Texas,” the Israeli news anchor announced.
15 years ago, on February 1st, 2003, the entire crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia lost their lives. Rick Husband. William McCool. Michael Anderson. Kalpana Chawla. Laurel Clark. David Brown. And Ilan Ramon.
From the start of their voyage, the Columbia crew knew they had little chance of survival.
When the space shuttle launched on January 16th, a piece of insulating foam broke off an engine and damaged the left wing. NASA estimated at the time that it caused a gash several feet long. Upon re-entry, that gash let in hot gases which ignited the main fuel tank. The disaster was fated two weeks before it happened.
This was not Ilan Ramon’s first brush with death. Born in 1954 in Ramat Gan to Holocaust survivors, Ilan grew up with the stories about his parents fleeing Nazi Germany. He was a wild child who always found himself in trouble.
Ilan joined the Israeli Air Force and quickly became Colonel Ramon. In 1981, he was the youngest pilot to participate in “Operation Opera” which successfully bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
The mission won him national fame. Ilan was then encouraged to try out for the 1996 NASA astronaut class as part of an American-Israeli space cooperation program. He was accepted. Ilan began training as a Payload Specialist at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
Ilan asked his Rabbi at the time: “How will I observe Shabbat if we rotate the Earth every 90 minutes?” The Rabbi responded: “Jerusalem, we have a problem.”
Some protested NASA for allowing an Israeli to join the U.S. space mission. In a TV interview days before departing, Ilan replied to his critics: “There is no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying in space. We are all the same people, we are all human beings, and I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people.”
As a child, I remember hearing in the news and from my parents about the first Israeli astronaut. One of my earliest memories is feeling jealous that this other Ilan (albeit, a different spelling), was so lucky to visit outer space.
Like many young boys, becoming an astronaut was for me a dream. Ilan Ramon served as a symbol of ultimate achievement, bravery, and freedom. He showed the world, and 7-year-old me, what a Jew could do. His death, which I also remember, was devastating.
On his last day aboard the Columbia, hours before re-entry, Ilan Ramon recorded in his diary: “Today was the first day that I felt that I am truly living in space. I have become a man who lives and works in space.”
Ilan Ramon logged 15 days, 22 hours and 20 minutes aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
May his memory be a blessing.