The Shuttle Columbia

Ilan RamonOn February 1, 2013, people around the world commemorated the 10 years that passed since the Columbia shuttle crash at 2003. Seven astronauts died when the Columbia broke apart 16 minutes before landing during re-entry into the atmosphere over Texas on its way to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

One of the astronauts that died was Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, a personal hero of mine, and a huge hero and symbol in Israel.

Ilan’s story starts with his family. His father fled Nazi persecution in 1935, and his mother and grandmother were Holocaust survivors, having been in Auschwitz. 

Ilan, was a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, with thousands of hours flying experience. He was the youngest pilot to take part in Operation Opera, Israel's strike against Iraq's unfinished Osiraq nuclear reactor.

In July 1998 he reported for training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where he trained until 2003. At 48 he was the oldest member of the crew of the Columbia.

Ramon is the only foreign recipient of the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Although considered a secular Jew, Ramon reportedly sought to follow Jewish observances while in orbit. In an interview he said, "I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis." He was the first spaceflight participant to request kosher food.

He reportedly sought advice from a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, Zvi Konikov, about how to observe the Jewish Sabbath in space, as the period between sunrises in orbit is approximately 90 minutes. This was referenced by the words "Jerusalem we have a problem" in Rabbi Konikov's speech.

Aboard STS-107, Ramon carried a pencil sketch, "Moon Landscape," drawn by 16-year-old Petr Ginz, who died in Auschwitz. Ramon also took with him a microfiche copy of the Torah.

Thirty-seven pages from the diary he was keeping while in orbit survived the crash and were returned to his widow, Rona. The diary survived extreme heat in the explosion, extreme atmospheric cold, and then "was attacked by microorganisms and insects. It's almost a miracle that it survived — it's incredible. There is 'no rational explanation' for how it was recovered when most of the shuttle was not."

But the story that began in the Holocaust and continued in the Columbia crash didn’t end there. His eldest son, Asaf Ramon, died on September 13, 2009 at the age of 21 during a routine training flight while piloting his F-16 (the same plane his dad used so often) only three months after graduating from the IAF flight school as the top cadet in his class, leaving Ilan’s wife, his mother, Rona, devastated but still amazingly strong, and a role model for us all.

The Ramon family was a part of the Houston community, living in Clear Lake and attending Greene Family Camp.