Feb. 2, 2003. 01:00 AM
Troubled nation grieves loss of its astronaut
`A great tragedy has befallen us,'
MIDDLE EAST BUREAU
JERUSALEM—For a nation bereft of life-affirming moments, nothing could compare to the dispatch beamed from outer space to Israel two weeks ago.
Speaking to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the cargo hold of the space shuttle Columbia, Israel's first astronaut reached gently into a plastic bag and produced a miniature prayer scroll.
Frightened fingers once held this tiny Torah inside the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. But on this day, it was in the hands of Col. Ilan Ramon, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor. It was in the stars.
"This scroll symbolizes, more than anything, the ability of the Jewish people to survive, everything, including horrible periods, and go from darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future," the 48-year-old married father of four told Sharon.
"I am moved to hold this."
So too was Israel moved. From the moment he reached for the sky, the country's answer to John Glenn has been the toast of Israel; both a national symbol of hope and a national distraction to two of the worst years this country has ever known.
Amid suicide bombs, a crumbling economy, a pointlessly painful struggle with Palestinians and the added anxieties of Iraq, the literal rise of Ilan Ramon stood alone. It wasn't simply Israel's finest moment. It was Israel's only moment.
All this makes the Columbia tragedy all the more painful. When news broke yesterday, Israel was in prayer, still two hours away from the end of the Sabbath. Ramon was in prayer as well. Though neither Orthodox nor observant, the Israeli space pioneer made a point of insisting on marking the Sabbath in space and procuring kosher food from NASA.
Israel held its collective breath in those early minutes, numb with the televised alert that NASA had "lost contact" with Columbia. The import of those words ceased to matter with the arrival of TV images showing the fragmented plumes of the shuttle careering to oblivion. Survival no longer seemed possible.
But the prime minister's office kept a glimmer of hope alive: "The government of Israel and the people of Israel are praying together with the entire world for the safety of the astronauts on the shuttle Columbia," Sharon said in a statement.
Minutes later, Ramon's anguished sister-in-law was the first family member to speak publicly in a television interview as she raced to Ben Gurion Airport to join kin in America.
Told by her interviewer, "We know how you must feel," she lashed back. "No you don't. You can't possibly know how I feel right now."
With the setting sun came confirmation of the worst, setting in motion a long night of national shock, grief and eulogizing.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert voiced the anguish of many in describing the horror of seeing the light go out on such a bright moment for the nation.
"We are not lucky to have one period without some tragedy, without some pain, which breaks the heart of everyone," Olmert said.
Shimon Peres, one of Israel's best-known statesmen, said simply: "Ilan Ramon took the country to new heights."
Sharon reached out to Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, who was surrounded by friends at his home in the southern Negev town of Omer.
"We never expected this. Up until the last minute we hoped it would all go smoothly. Now we don't have Ilan anymore," Wolferman told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "A great tragedy has befallen us."
The 79-year-old Wolferman was being interviewed live in Jerusalem on Channel Two shortly before the scheduled landing of Columbia.
"I last spoke to (Ramon) via a video conference when I was still in Houston," Wolferman said. "It was very emotional. Our family saw him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air."
Moments later, the interviewer cut him off as the station broke away to its correspondent in Florida, who explained that ground controllers had lost contact with the shuttle. When the broadcast returned to the Jerusalem studio, Wolferman had left.
Later, the order was given for Israel to charter an airplane for Ramon's family to join their bereaved relatives in America.
Sharon then spoke with U.S. President George W. Bush in an exchange of mutual condolences to be extended for the American and Israeli families.
"The president said he knows that aboard the shuttle was a brave Israeli, Col. Ilan Ramon, and asked that the Ramon family receive the condolences of the entire American people, his personal condolences, and expressed solidarity with them at this difficult time in their lives," Sharon's office said in a statement.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also joined the chorus of grief.
Throughout Israel, meanwhile, remembrances were being planned through the night. This morning, as Israelis awake to flags at half-staff, every school in the country has been asked to spend the first hour of class on a special program to commemorate Ramon.
Israeli Air Force commander Dan Halutz saluted Ramon at a press briefing, vowing to push for Israel's continued involvement in space exploration to fulfill the legacy.
Halutz read from an email message he received from Ramon on Friday calling it "an honour to represent all of you here in space."
"I consider this a call to the air force to continue with this mission," Halutz told reporters. "I certainly envisage seeing another Israeli astronaut."
Israel's inaugural shuttle mission came with increased security amid fears the launch and landing might pose a risk of terrorism.
But for Ramon himself, the attendant dangers of the mission were the farthest thing from his mind. In an interview last month with the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv, he spoke glowingly of NASA's safety procedures.
"The chances an accident would happen in space are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I'm not concerned at all ... I'm sorry, but I'm not afraid," Ramon said.
"In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else."
Born in Tel Aviv on June 20, 1954, Ramon lived most of his adult life in the air, becoming one of the Israeli Air Force's most senior pilots during a career that began in 1972.
He was part of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and went on to fly A-4 and Mirage III-C aircraft throughout the 1970s.
As a deputy commander of Israel's first F-16 squadron, Ramon was one of eight jet fighters involved in the 1981 pre-emptive attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad.
In the mid-1980s, Ramon returned to school, earning a degree in electrical and computer engineering. The academic furlough proved a springboard to a career managing aviation experiments for the air force.
He was readying to retire from the force in 1997 when he was asked by a colleague whether he would like to be an astronaut.
"I told him, `Come on, I don't have time for jokes right now,'" Ramon said in an interview last year. "When I was a kid growing up, nobody in Israel ever dreamed — well, most people wouldn't dream — of being an astronaut, because it wasn't on the agenda ... When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space. I was very excited."
A year later Ramon reported for training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, with his wife Rona and their children.
As his launch date neared, Ramon spoke of his plans to bring with him artefacts such as the Torah scroll of Bergen-Belsen as a means of emphasizing the unity of Israelis and the wider Jewish Diaspora. Also on board the Columbia, Ramon carried a drawing by a concentration camp teenager that depicted what Earth might look like from the moon.
"My mother is a Holocaust survivor, she was in Auschwitz," Ramon explained in an interview for NASA's official Web site. "My father fought for the independence of Israel. I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for and we've been going through in the last century is becoming true."
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