On February 1, 2003 twenty years ago today, I was a young mother and wife living in Israel with 3 young children. Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut was aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia about to reenter the earth’s atmosphere with the 6 other crew members, all American; commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark.
As we all excitedly watched the television screen for their return to earth, the four adults suddenly
realized that something was wrong. As we watched white streaks stain the sky, we froze. We literally couldn’t speak. As a tear ran down my cheek, I could feel my children looking at me trying to read my face.
They were too young to understand what was happening, only that something was wrong. How do you explain to children that the first real Israeli hero in decades and 6 other American heroes had just died in front of our eyes? How do you explain the unexplainable?
Ilan Ramon had already made history in 1981 as one of eight Israeli F-16 fighter pilots who destroyed the nuclear reactor in Iraq. It was an incredibly dangerous mission, but he reportedly felt that as the son of a Holocaust survivor, it was his mission to defend Israel.
But by 2003, Ilan Ramon was more than a hero, he was a national treasure.
On January 16, 2003, Israelis celebrated as their native son, launched into space as part of a 7 person crew. Not only was he the first astronaut to request kosher food, but he celebrated his Jewishness and our shared history publicly and with pride. Children all over Israel watched in amazement as their hero soared. The crew was slated to conduct dozens of experiments during their journey, and Ramon even brought an experiment from an Israeli student (to see if crystals grow in space) on the journey.
Ramon also brought a copy of a drawing by 16-year-old Petr Ginz, who had died in Auschwitz, called “Moon Landscape.” It was a picture of the Earth the way Ginz imagined it would look if viewed from the Moon. He also brought a miniature Torah and a mezuzah, gifted to him by Holocaust survivors.
His mission continues: