I was recently in Ness Ziona and I wandered upon Ilan Ramon Street. That experience reminded me that, with so much focus on Israel’s recent lunar space project, it is an opportune time to focus on Israel’s first astronaut.
The space capsule was a private initiative, rather than a government-funded enterprise, but was nevertheless a patriotic event in which Israelis and Jews worldwide were swelling with pride. The president of SpaceIL and the project’s largest funder, Morris Kahn, whose company collaborated with Israel Aerospace Industries, said at the February lift-off ceremony, “I couldn’t be prouder than to give this gift to the people of Israel.” Despite the failed lunar landing, Israel should take pride in becoming only the seventh country to successfully enter the moon’s orbit.
The strong feelings of patriotism are reflected in the items that were attached to the spacecraft, including a disk containing drawings by Israeli children, the Bible, the national anthem, prayers, Israeli songs and a map of Israel, among other cultural and religious items.
Many aspects of this space odyssey reminded me of Israel’s legendary Ilan Ramon. Born to a mother who was a Holocaust survivor and a father who fled Nazi persecution, Ilan’s original last name was Wolferman. He changed it to Ramon based on his love for Mitzpeh Ramon, a southern Negev town that hosts the beautiful Ramon Crater – known to Israelis as the Machtesh – a valley surrounded by steep walls that is over twenty-five miles long, five miles wide and 1,500 feet deep.
Prior to becoming an astronaut, Ramon was already an Israeli hero as a decorated Air Force pilot who participated in Israel’s 1981 strike against Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor and served in both the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Operation Peace of the Galilee.
Although not observant, Ramon understood his role as Israel’s first space diplomat. During the mission, he ate only kosher food, made Kiddush Friday night, and recited Shema Yisrael as the shuttle flew over Jerusalem. Ramon explained that he decided to do so in order to “emphasize the unity of the people of Israel and the Jewish communities abroad.” Similar to the Beresheet space capsule, Ramon engendered national pride by bringing a miniature Torah given to him by a Holocaust survivor, a mezuzah, a book of Psalms and a picture drawn by a teenager who was killed in Auschwitz.
When Ilan Ramon, together with the rest of the Columbia shuttle crew, tragically perished during re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere, the Jewish nation mourned with his wife and family. Ilan’s dream of unity was fulfilled; unfortunately, it was accomplished in the nation’s collective grieving of his death.
In addition to the Ness Ziona street, two streets in Canada have been named in Ramon’s honor. Furthermore, the newly opened international airport located on the outskirts of Eilat was named in memory of Ilan and his oldest son Assaf, who died in 2009 at the age of 21 during a routine training flight a mere three months after graduating at the top of his class from the Israel Air Force flight school.
Ilan Ramon inspired us during his illustrious life, and his legacy continues to inspire us even after his death.