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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2003 / 1 Adar I, 5763


Ramon was man of faith who helped destroy Hussein's nuclear reactor

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (UPI) Israelis, tuning in as the Sabbath ended to watch live broadcasts of the landing of the U.S. shuttle and Israel's first astronaut, watched in horror Saturday as the festive mood turned first to confusion over its delayed arrival and then to tragedy, bright flashes and puffs of vapor taking over their television screens.

Eliezer Woferman, the father of Israel's first man to fly in space, was in Channel 2 TV's studio for the broadcast. Before the attempted landing he smilingly described the family's videoconference with Col. Ilan Ramon aboard Columbia.

Ramon's children asked him to do somersaults in the air, which Ramon did. "Under those condition I would have done it too," the elderly Woferman joked.

After a television reporter in Florida broadcast that contact with the shuttle was lost, Wolferman still tried to maintain his composure. Shortly thereafter, however, he took a taxi home to Omer, near Been Sheba, and told reporters, "I have no son."

"I hoped the shuttle's pilots would land it even without communications. But of course I thought of (problems with) radio communications, not something like this," he added. Wolferman prepared Saturday evening to fly to Houston, Texas, to join his daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, where Ramon's family lived while he completed training for the mission.

"I told Rona (Col. Ramon's widow) that she should hang on until we get there. We'll see who will be more successful in doing so. I don't know," the bereaved father said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called both Wolferman and Rona Ramon, who had taken the family to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to greet her husband upon returning to Earth. The widow told Sharon that her husband had managed to fulfill his dream while searching and making progress towards a better world, the prime minister's office reported after midnight.

Sharon's spokesman also issued a statement extending the Jewish people's condolences to the astronauts' families and the entire American people: "Times such as these strengthen the Israeli and American peoples' common fate, identity and values, and shared vision," it said.

In a rare gesture, Israeli and U.S. flags on Sunday flew at half-mast outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.

Strangers offered sympathies to Ramon's relatives all afternoon and evening.

"I have seen so many tragedies and dramas during my life in Israel, unending terror attacks, parents losing children, children remaining orphans, rivers of blood," one person who identified himself only as "Israeli" wrote on Y-net, news provider Yediot Aharonot's Web site. "Suddenly it was all cast aside and we have a reason to be proud, our Ilan is in space.

"The end was bad luck, but Ilan Ramon, you conquered space and you shall, forever, be an Israeli angel up there," the writer concluded.

"It was a shock to us all," said Professor Zeev Levin, who was responsible for one of the Israeli experiments. "We can't comprehend what happened," he added.

In recent weeks Ramon had become a local hero. Israel is very secretive about its pilots' identities, and until the accident had tried to suppress reports that he had been part of the fighter-plane team that destroyed a Iraqi nuclear reactor in progress of being built in 1981. One of the mission's commanders, retired Maj. Gen. Avihu Bin-Nun, confirmed for United Press International that Ramon was the youngest of the pilots, flying in tight formation to avoid detection as fighter aircraft, who slipped through Iraqi airspace to the French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad.

Ramon was born near Tel Aviv in 1954, got his pilots wings in 1974, and six years later was among the first 10 pilots selected to fly Israel's new F-16s. During training exercises he was involved in a collision between two fighter planes.

"To my luck, I and the other pilot bailed out without a scratch, but that was a tough experience," he told the air force's magazine. "On the one hand you are happy everybody is healthy and well, but on the other hand you find yourself wondering about life and how lucky you are."

Ramon's unassuming composure, his choice of mementos to carry with him to space -- including a drawing by a boy killed during the Holocaust, in which Ramon's own mother and grandmother were also interned -- endeared him to many.

During his trip he talked of his excitement about flying over Israel, seeing Jerusalem and realizing how thin is atmosphere that surrounds the world.

"What do you see from there that you can't see from here?" Prime Minister Sharon asked him in a televised conversation.

Ramon answered: "Our earth is beautiful, really, and the atmosphere which makes it possible for us to live and breathe is really thin. We've got to take care of it like the apple of our eye."

Ramon also exchanged e-mail messages from space, from a get-well letter to a former air force commander to a message to Israel's President Moshe Katsav. "This morning we flew over Israel. From space I could clearly see Jerusalem. When I looked at our capital I said one small prayer -- "Hear O Israel, G-d is our L-rd, G-d is one," the Ha'aretz newspaper reported him as writing in one message. The prayer, known as the "Shema," is Judaism's most fundamental affirmation of faith.

Israeli air force commander Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz read to reporters a message he received from Ramon on Friday. "Air and space are one continuity and here we are in space," he wrote.

The head of the Israel Space Agency, Avi Har-Even, said, "We knew accidents could happen and unfortunately they do." Both leaders said they expect to continue their relationship with the U.S. space program.

Israel's Government Coins and Medals Corp. announced before the shuttle loss it would issue a medal commemorating Ramon. The medal will still be released, but now in the form of a memorial, Ha'aretz reported.

A former Israeli air force commander, Avihu Binnun, declared, "The cooperation with the United States in space does not depend on one failure. There can always be failures. We come from an area where accidents happen and friends fall, and we know to continue living."

President Ariel Sharon released a statement that said, "The state of Israel and its citizens are standing at this difficult hour at the sides of the astronauts' families, the Ramon family, the American people and its government in a prayer to the almighty."

"For nearly 30 years, Colonel Ramon served and protected Israel. His mission to space was shared by all of Israel and all the world, and shines on as a beacon of light for our nation," Itamar Rabinovich, president of Ramon's alma mater Tel Aviv University, said in a statement. The former ambassador of Israel to the United States then added, "He, and all the astronauts onboard, will be in our hearts forever."

Among the 80-odd experiments aboard was one from Tel Aviv University. Ramon was collecting data about the effect of dust on imaging over the Mediterranean region. The air force hoped its results would improve abilities to photograph and observe areas even when they are heavily covered with dust.

  —   Joshua Brilliant

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