Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Adar I 5763 - February 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Ilan Ramon: The Death of a Jew in Space
by Yated Ne'eman Staff and M Plaut

Col. Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died last Shabbos aboard the space shuttle Columbia, was a soft-spoken combat pilot.

Before the Columbia's mission, and later as the shuttle carried out its 16 days of science experiments, much of the attention focused on Colonel Ramon. The son of a Holocaust survivor, Colonel Ramon, 48, was the first citizen of Israel to go into space. He felt this as a calling and he responded to the call. "Every time you are the first, it is meaningful," he said. "I am told my flight is meaningful to a lot of Jewish people around the world. Being the first Israeli astronaut, I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis."

He was sensitive to the symbolism of his journey and the steps he took were widely reported. He asked for kosher food on the shuttle, although he acknowledged that he did not insist on it in his everyday life. He also took along wine and a kiddush cup for Shabbos, though he did not seek out expert halachic guidance for when he should observe it.

On the shuttle, where he presided over an Israeli project to collect images of dust storms to gauge their impact on climate, Colonel Ramon also carried a small sefer Torah used at the bar mitzvah of the dust project's principal investigator, Dr. Joachim Joseph. The bar mitzvah took place almost 60 years ago in a Nazi concentration camp. The elderly rabbi who helped him, gave the Torah to the boy and told him to tell people what had happened there. He was niftar soon after. Dr. Joseph said Colonel Ramon saw the Torah when visiting his home and was so moved by the story that he asked to take it into space.

In an interview from space with Israeli officials, Ramon displayed the Torah. "This represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive despite everything from horrible periods, black days, to reach periods of hope and belief in the future," the colonel said.

Ramon also carried a credit-card sized microfiche of the Bible given to him by Israeli President Moshe Katsav, and some mezuzahs.

The Hebrew Yated Ne'eman wrote that "Ilan Ramon . . . will be rememembered for his pleasant talk (sichoh no'eh). He felt himself as a Jew, and sought to highlight Jewish symbols in his journey. . . . In these days of incitement against anything holy, Ramon will be remembered as one who spoke about his Jewishness without any embarrassment, even when he reached the pinnacle of technological achievement."

Officials at NASA acknowledged that the presence of an Israeli astronaut intensified the heightened security they had imposed since Sept. 11, 2001. But Colonel Ramon and his crewmates said they were not unduly concerned about their safety. Colonel Ramon, who spent more than four years preparing for the flight, saw it repeatedly postponed by higher-priority missions and problems that periodically grounded the shuttle fleet.

Ilan Ramon was born on June 20, 1954 in a Tel Aviv suburb and, after graduating from high school in 1972, attended the Israel Air Force Flight School. He became a fighter pilot and logged more than 4,000 hours in various combat aircraft. He was still in training during the Yom Kippur War, and his first combat assignment was on the mission to bomb the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 where he played an important role.

In 1994 he was promoted to colonel and assigned to head the air force's weapons development and acquisition division. Colonel Ramon was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1997 as a result of an agreement two years earlier between President Bill Clinton and Shimon Peres, then the Israeli foreign minister. He and his wife, Rona, moved to Houston in 1998 so he could begin training at the Johnson Space Center. He is also survived by four children ages 6 to 14.

The American Space Program

After the Soviet Union leaped first into space with the orbiting of Sputnik I in 1957, American fears of losing in the space race led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. In the 1960s it focused on putting Americans on the moon in fulfillment of President John F. Kennedy's bold promise to do so, although it also launched weather and communication satellites and achieved many other goals.

Begun in 1958 and completed in 1963, the Mercury program was the nation's first man-in-space project, although its six flights accomplished much more, sending up the first weather and communications satellites, devising ways to launch and recover spacecraft and investigating human ability to work in space. Its accomplishments included Alan B. Shepard Jr.'s suborbital spaceflight in 1961 and John Glenn's three- orbit flight in 1962.

From 1964 to 1966, Gemini put astronauts into orbit for up to two weeks, with some of them stepping outside their capsules for spacewalks. A Ranger 7 rocket sent back close-up images of the moon before crashing on the lunar surface in 1964. A year later Mariner 4 flew within 6,118 miles of Mars, providing the first close-up images, and in 1966 Surveyor 1 made America's first soft landing on the moon and transmitted 10,000 photos of the lunar surface.

In December 1968, Apollo 8, with the astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr. and William A. Anders on board, circled the moon and, focusing a television camera on earth, sent to worldwide television audiences the first view of the "blue marble."

The climax was in 1969 with the Apollo 11 moon landing. On July 20 Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. touched down in a lander while Michael Collins orbited in a command module. Setting foot on the surface, Armstrong told millions of viewers it was "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Before returning to earth, the astronauts spent 21 hours on the moon, taking rocks and soil, setting up experiments and planting an American flag.

There were other moon landings, including Apollo 15 in 1971, the first of three longer, expedition-style missions using a lunar rover. In 1972, Apollo 17 was the last of six moon missions; the astronauts spent 22 hours in moon walks and camped out for three days. In all, 12 men walked on the moon before the Apollo program ended.

Along the way there were other achievements. In 1971, Mariner 9 became the first Mars orbiter, and over the next two years Pioneer 11 went to Jupiter and sent back dramatic cloud-top and polar pictures. Viking 1 landed on Mars in 1976 and transmitted data for six years.

The $25 billion space shuttle was envisioned in the 1970s as the successor to the successful moon-landing program. Less expensive and ambitious than a manned mission to Mars, the reusable shuttle was to revolutionize exotic space flight by turning it into an inexpensive, routine event, paying its own way by deploying and repairing satellites and selling other space services.

But the shuttle program did not have smooth sailing. The first flight was by the Columbia in 1981. Many problems were hidden until the 1986 explosion of the Challenger, which killed seven astronauts within minutes of their launch.

The Last Mission

Up until its fiery and tragic end, the mission had been a success. Researchers from Tel Aviv University said their Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment had gathered solid information on the plumes of dust and other aerosol particles blown from deserts by storms before being carried worldwide by high winds. The particles affect rain production in clouds, deposit minerals in the ocean and scatter sunlight that affects global warming, the scientists said.

"The experiment has worked without a hitch," Dr. Joachim Joseph, a principal investigator, told a briefing at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before the tragedy. "We have very good data, very unique data." It is not yet known how much of the data were transmitted to earth and how much lost together with the spacecraft.

The entire world joined in the mourning for the six American astronauts and the lone Israeli -- except for parts of the Arab world. There was outright glee in areas like Iraq and Palestine which are happy for any trouble suffered by America. Iraqis said the loss is in punishment for what America and Israel has done to them.

"Generally speaking, reports in the Palestinian and Arab media has been one of schadenfreude," a Palestinian writer told The Jerusalem Post. "You have to understand that anything that is painful for the Americans and the Israelis is seen by the Palestinians in particular, and the Arabs in general, as a blessing. That's how it is."


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