Fifteen years ago this week – on Feb. 1, 2003 – 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land following a 16-day mission, the space shuttle Columbia exploded on re-entry. Its crew of seven all died in the incident.
One of the members of the crew was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to become an astronaut.
The tragic re-entry occurred on a Saturday morning. The devastating news reached some people when they were in synagogue. There were gasps of disbelief. Some sobbed, their tears blending with the prayers.
Although he was only 48, Ramon, who was the oldest member of the crew, had already touched the heavens, in his role as an Israeli fighter pilot. He took part in the dangerous 1981 mission that destroyed the Iraqi Osiraq nuclear reactor before it became operative. He achieved the rank of colonel over the course of his career.
Those who knew him cherished his kindness and loyalty, his dedication to family and friends, and his sense of duty. His smile was a bit mischievous, but also large, warm and effusive. It hid a penetrating intellect, engaging personality and quiet, self-confident humility.
Despite his many achievements, Ramon was not pretentious. He felt the weight and responsibility of protecting his land and its people.
Ramon was not an observant Jew. But he was deeply Jewish and acutely aware of the flow of Jewish history and of the importance of the establishment of the State of Israel in that history. His father fled to Israel from Nazi Germany in 1935, and his mother and grandmother cane in 1949, after surviving Auschwitz. Thus, Ramon saw his participation in the NASA flight as a journey on behalf of his people, as well as his country.
“I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis,” he said before his crew took flight.
He not only brought personal keepsakes with him to space, but also Jewish artifacts, including: a pencil sketch of the moon drawn by a young Jewish boy who was killed in Auschwitz; a miniature sefer Torah that had been rescued from the Holocaust; and a barbed-wire mezuzah.
Remarkably, some two months after the explosion, parts of Ramon’s notebook and diary were found in a field in Texas. The pages were retrieved and salvaged by Israeli specialists, who found it hard to believe that the paper survived the fiery re-entry and crash, as well as two months of exposure to the sun and the rain. Among the pages was the blessing of the Kiddush.
Ramon’s death was mourned by the entire nation. His family and friends were devastated. Communities in Israel and around the world have attempted to memorialize his life and his memory. In Canada, for example, the city of Côte-Saint-Luc, Que., named one of its streets Ilan Ramon Crescent. And in Vaughan, Ont., there is an Ilan Ramon Boulevard.
We must try to ensure that generations born since Feb. 1, 2003, will also learn about Ilan Ramon and all that his life came to represent for his country and his people.
The other crew members who died with Ramon on the Columbia that day were Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown and Laurel Clark.
May all their memories be for blessing.