Many remember Ilan Ramon for his tragic death on board space shuttle Columbia in 2003. But even prior to his death, Ilan Ramon had established himself as a hero for Israelis and Jews around the world. Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut to go on a mission to space, a huge accomplishment for the country’s relatively young space program.
Ramon was born Ilan Wolfermann on June 20, 1954 in Ramat Gan, Israel. Ramon grew up in a secular Jewish family. His mother was a Holocaust survivor, a story was became highlighted in the media when Ramon took his space flight.
Life in the Air Force
Ramon joined the Israeli Air Force in 1974. In 1981, flying an F-16 plane, Ramon participated in Operation Opera, a surprise Israeli air strike against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. From1983-1987, he attended Tel Aviv University, receiving a degree in electronics and computer engineering. After completing his education, he returned to the Air Force, reaching the rank of colonel in 1994.
All the while, Israel started to develop its space program. Starting with funding in the 1970s, the Israeli Space Agency (ISA) launched its first satellite, Ofeq 1, in 1988. At the time, Israel was one of only seven countries to launch a satellite with a self-made launcher, the Shavit.
Transition to Astronaut
The ISA also started developing relations with other countries’ space programs. In 1998, the Israeli and American governments cosponsored a project out of Tel Aviv University, “The Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment.” The goal was to research desert dust’s effect on global warming. Scheduled for a 2003 space expedition to carry out related experiments, Ilan Ramon came to the United States to begin his training as an astronaut, the first Israeli to do so.
In late January 2003, as he was making his final preparations for his 16-day excursion on Columbia, Ramon decided he was going to represent Israelis and Jews while he was in space. He approached NASA about receiving special kosher meals while in space. He asked rabbis about intricacies of keeping the Sabbath in space, as days are only 90 minutes long in orbit.
He also brought a miniature Torah, given to him by a Holocaust survivor from Bergen-Belsen, along with a mezuzah and a book of Psalms. While aboard Columbia, Ramon wrote an email to the then-president of Israel, Moshe Katzav. He wrote: “From space I could easily spot Jerusalem, and while looking at Jerusalem our capital I prayed just one short prayer – ‘Shema Israel Adonai Elohenou Adonai Echad.'”
On February 1, 2003, after 16 days in orbit, the crew from Columbia was returning to Earth, when the shuttle exploded during re-entry over Texas, killing all eight members of the crew, including Ramon.
Ramon was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He is the only non-U.S. citizen recipient ever to receive that honor.
Pronounced: ah-doe-NYE, Origin: Hebrew, a name for God.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.