February marks the 15th anniversary of intense pride and grief when Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut touched the sky but then met tragedy as he and the crew of the Columbia perished. Today, a look at the legacy of Ramon and some of the other 13 Jews who have made space their home.
Judith Resnik is remembered as the first American in space and unfortunately as one of seven passengers on the Space Shuttle Challenger which exploded 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986. The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Resnik had never expressed an interest in space while growing up. But that changed after an encounter with NASA recruiter Nichelle Nichols better known as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. Nichols was advocating for more women and minorities in scientific fields and Resnik decided to go for it. Of 8,000 applicants, Resnik was one of 35 successful candidates.
Resnik completed a successful mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1984 before her ill-fated trip aboard the Challenger two years later. Akron Rabbi David Horowitz recalls reciting the Kaddish for Resnik, ending with the words, “May the God who brings peace in the high places bring peace to this astronaut who reached out to touch those high places.”
Although Judith Resnick was the first Jewish American in space, she was not the first Jew in space. That honour goes to Boris Volynov, the Jewish Soviet cosmonaut who flew aboard the Soyuz 5 in January 1969. Volynov wasn’t free of Soviet anti-Semitism rampant at the time. He had trained with famed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and was named a backup crewmember five times. But his attempts were stymied after the Soviet Central Committee sent the message, “Do not send Jews into space!” Volynov persevered and was eventually chosen to go into space (twice actually, in 1969 and 1976) and was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, also twice.
Garrett Reisman was the first Jewish member of the International Space Station. While aboard the Space Station in 2008, Israel was marking its 60th anniversary and Reisman sent this message to the people of Israel. “As the first Jewish crew member on the Space Station, this Independence Day is particularly important to me and I am very proud to be carrying a copy of the Independence Scroll on board the station.” He added, “Whenever the space station is located over the state of Israel, I try to find a window, and it always manages to move me when I see Israel’s familiar outline coming toward us from the horizon.”
David Wolf may have been a medical doctor and an electrical engineer, and had already served aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1993. But he also had a Jewish mother to answer to. Wolf was hoping to serve aboard the Russian Space Station Mir in 1997. Trouble was that the 11-year-old orbiting station was showing its age. A fire, a collision and several malfunctions did not instill confidence and there was concern whether it was a safe place for an American astronaut. Wolf was not daunted, “I’m not playing Russian roulette or spinning dice to see how many times I can do it before something bad happens.” His mother didn’t see eye-to-eye with her son. “I wouldn’t mind if they canceled the whole thing,” she told the Associated Press. Well, Dottie didn’t get her wish. David Wolf served aboard Mir – and returned safely – as well as completing two other tours of duty aboard space shuttles.
Much has been written about the legacy of Ilan Ramon and his numerous posthumous tributes including the U.S. Congressional Space Medal of Honor of which Ramon is the only non-U.S. citizen recipient. But I would like to leave the last word to him. While aboard the Columbia, Ramon kept a diary. After the crash, remnants of the flight diary were found in a Texas field. Sharon Brown, a superintendent in the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science was charged with trying to piece together the journal to get insight into the last days of Ilan Ramon.
“What happened was we got a pile of papers – I imagined they’d be charred, blackened bits of paper – possibly with some light source that you’d be able to seem some letters in Hebrew. Well, they walked in with papers that were white with black handwriting on it – they were a bit tattered and traumatized, but nothing like you’d imaging from the huge explosion that took place 40 miles up in the sky and then being hurtled down to earth – it was truly amazing,” Brown said. Some of the contents contained technical notes; others are personal musings, “Today is maybe the first day that I really feel like I live in space. I turned out to be a man who lives and works in space, just like in the movies.” One moving find was handwritten Shabbat Kiddush so he could recite it on the space shuttle.
Added Ramon’s wife, Rona, “This is a small miracle that needs to be shared.”