group of angels and they will remain that way."
— Rona Ramon, widow of Col. Ilan Ramon, on the seven space shuttle Columbia astronauts
Israeli hero Ilan Ramon was closely followed by his countrymen.
of golden boy. "When he was picked to
1; be the first astronaut, no one was sur-
IR, prised. He was the natural choice,"
said Oded Bar-Ziv, a former IAF
t didn't take a fighter pilot to do
squadron commander alongside
what Ilan Ramon did on
Ramon, and a neighbor of his in Re'ut,
Columbia's last flight.
a town built for military personnel.
The Israeli Air Force colonel
At 20, Ramon finished first in flight
was a "payload specialist" on the shut-
school. Later, he was one of the IAF's
tle, meaning he was in charge of some
masters of the F-16, the American-made
of the scientific experiments. Mainly,
workhorse of the Israeli fighter jet fleet.
his job was to take photographs of dust
Finally he took over weapons develop-
that blows from the Sahara Desert
ment and procurement for the IAF
across the Middle East for an Israeli
before moving to Houston with his
experiment on how dust affects rainfall.
wife, Rona, and four children, to
But before being chosen five years
become an astronaut. He beat out hun-
ago by the IAF to be Israel's first astro-
dreds of IAF competitors for the honor.
naut, Ramon, 48, was one of the best
Like all air forces, Israel's is acutely
Israeli fighter jocks of his generation.
competitive, and pilots are known to
He made his name in 1981, becoming
get jealous. "But no one begrudged
the youngest of eight pilots on one of
Ilan his success. Everybody was happy
the most daring missions in IAF histo-
for him," said Bar-Ziv.
ry, the bombing of Iraq's Osirak
Shira Leshem, a neighbor in Re'ut
nuclear reactor. Later, in the Lebanon
who knew Ramon when she was an
War, Ramon shot down a Syrian jet.
IAF air traffic controller, said, 'A lot of
"Twice I've had to bail out of jets.
pilots are arrogant. They like to brag,
I've been in some very rough incidents, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, shown during h is Dec. 18
but Ilan was the opposite. On the
so flying in a spaceship doesn't scare
radio, he never sounded like, 'I'm the
suitup for a simulated launch countdown at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
me. It scares me more to drive on the
pilot and you're only an air traffic con-
freeway," Ramon told Israel's Ma'ariv
troller.' He respected your judgment,
ing bad news about war, terror and hard economic
he treated you as an equal."
times, Ramon's story was like a desperately-needed
After training 4 1 /2 years for the shuttle flight,
Becoming Israel's first astronaut didn't go to his
holiday for Israelis, a trip to exotic, faraway places.
which was held up repeatedly by technical difficul-
head, said Bar-Ziv's wife, Nava. "He wasn't inter-
And in a time when they feel isolated and
ties, he said the only thing that scared him was the
ested in sushi. He still liked drinking his beer and
shunned by the world, Ramon's flight aboard
thought of another delay.
eating his shwarma with the tehina dripping down
Columbia let Israelis think they were at the cutting
If Columbia hadn't crashed, this 113th shuttle
edge of the world's endeavors.
mission and the six U.S. astronauts on it would
have passed largely unnoticed by the American
Down To Earth
public. But in Israel, Ramon was a national hero
and a household name by the time he rocketed
By his own account, Ramon lived an inspiring 16
"Ilan Ramon was one of ours. No Yuri Gagarin, no
days in space. Taking a call from Israeli Prime
Neil Armstrong — but he was ours," wrote Ari
Public schools taught about his exploits. A medal
Minister Ariel Sharon, he described seeing the "gor-
Shavit in the daily Hakretz.
was struck in his honor. After 2 1 /2 years of unrelent-
Friends and fellow pilots described him as a kind
GOLDEN BOY on page 17
Special to the Jewish News