Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Official NASA photograph of the Columbia crew, originally signed by Ramon.

Nobody who was alive at the time will ever forget the white plumes of smoke across the blue Texas sky when the seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia died as the Columbia blew up sixteen minutes before its scheduled landing. Among them was Ilan Ramon (1954-2003), Israel’s first man in space, who was a textbook blend of the Jewish people – a child of Holocaust survivors, a decorated IDF air force pilot, and a source of universal Jewish pride who, as a representative of all Jews, was an authentic Jewish hero. He is the only foreign recipient of the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Cartoon featuring seven stars representing the deaths of Columbia’s seven astronauts. The star representing Ramon is poignantly depicted as a Magen David.

The STS-107 was a multi-disciplinary microgravity and Earth NASA science research mission with a multitude of international scientific investigations conducted continuously during its 16 days in orbit. The crew died on February 1, 2003, when the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere due to a piece of foam that broke off during launch and damaged the thermal protection system components on the leading edge of the left wing of the Shuttle orbiter, causing an extensive heat build-up and leading to the fatal crash – over, ironically, Palestine, Texas.

Commemorative space cover originally signed by Ramon and his six fellow Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts.

The incredibly rare commemorative “launch” cover exhibited here, which bears Kennedy Space Center postmarks for January 16 and February 1, 2003, (the beginning and ending dates for the fateful Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 mission, is signed by Ilan Ramon and his six fellow mission astronauts: Commander Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark. Ironically, Ramon had requested that the launch not take place on Tisha B’Av, a day of great disaster and sadness throughout Jewish history.

Israel cover originally signed by Ramon in Hebrew and English and inscribed “STS-107.”

Ramon’s father’s family had fled to Israel from Germany in 1935 to escape the Nazis, and his father fought in Israel’s War of Independence. His mother and grandmother were Auschwitz survivors from Poland who made aliyah in 1949, but his grandfather and other family members were murdered in concentration camps.

Ramon became a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force in 1972 after his high school graduation and, after completing flight school, he changed his name from Wolferman in accordance with the example set by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who had changed his own name from “David Green” and who urged all Israeli soldiers to adopt a Hebrew name. Ramon fought in the Yom Kippur War a year later and, when the Israeli Air Force established its first F-16 Squadron, he was trained on the F-16 at Hill Air Force Base in Utah in 1980. In June 1981, he developed the brilliant tactical attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, and he served as the youngest pilot in the IAF mission that destroyed the reactor. He volunteered to fly in the most dangerous position at the rear of the plane because he was the only unmarried member of the crew; at his memorial service in Houston, President Bush told Ramon’s family: “Ilan bombed the Iraqi reactor, and I will finish the job.”

Ramon graduated from Tel Aviv University in 1987 with a Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering and electronics; he served as Commander of the F-16 Squadron (1990-1992) and as head of the Aircraft Branch in the Operations Requirement Department (1992-1994); he was selected as an astronaut and payload specialist in 1997; and began his training in 1998 at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

From the very outset of his selection to fly as the first Israeli in space, Ramon distinguished himself with his nobility and grace and by the seriousness with which he took his very public role as a proud representative of both Israel and the Jewish people. He keenly felt the significance of his representing Israel in space, telling an interviewer, “Being the first Israeli astronaut, I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis.” Referring to Holocaust survivors with whom he had communicated after his selection for the space mission, he said “They look at you as a dream that they could have never dreamed of… The look in their eyes is very powerful. They see their hopes that had died in the Holocaust as living on through me. They see that despite the horrors we have endured, we are going forward.”

He declared, “I know my flight is very symbolic for the people of Israel, especially the survivors, the Holocaust survivors. Because I was born in Israel, many people will see this as a dream that is come true.” When the shuttle took off from Cape Canaveral, several of the Jews and Israelis gathered there broke into a spontaneous singing of Oseh Shalom Bimromav (“He who makes Peace from his Heavens”).

Rare handwritten letter by Ramon. Note that he refused to take a contribution from his correspondent because “I am still military.”

During NASA’s early years, it had not enacted any policies regarding religious observances in space. The issue first arose when John P. Donnelley, Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs at the Johnson Space Center, received an angry letter complaining that astronauts’ religious expression in space had been suppressed because of a lawsuit filed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists. She is perhaps best known for Murray v. Curlett, her successful challenge to the government’s policy of mandatory prayers and Bible in the Baltimore public schools. Many people do not know that O’Hair was also a leading Holocaust denier; for example, in a notorious article in American Atheist magazine, she argued that Auschwitz was little more than a labor camp, that less than 1.5 million Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust, and that Central Europe was substantially cleared of Jews because of emigration.

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 21, 1969, Buzz Aldrin, a religious man, wanted to find a suitable way to mark the occasion by invoking G-d’s name, but NASA, still bruised from its battle with O’Hair, ordered him to keep his ceremony low-key. As such, instead of offering a public thanks to G-d, he requested permission to observe a few moments of silence.

O’Hair filed a lawsuit challenging the reading of the Bible from lunar orbit during Apollo 8, when over a billion people – about 25 percent of the earth’s entire population – tuned in to hear the crew take turns reading an English translation of the first ten verses of creation from Genesis but, on September 23, 1970, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court found no constitutional violation in astronauts praying or reading from the Bible while traveling to the moon. In a November 2, 1973, memorandum, Donnelley wrote that “it has always been NASA policy to neither restrict nor encourage these expressions from outer space… There are no specific current policies for the observance of the Sabbath or religious holidays.”

As such, Ramon, thrilled to be able to see Jerusalem clearly from space, was able to make a point of reciting the Shema in Hebrew as Columbia passed over the Holy City. In a televised conversation with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from space, he urged every Jew in the world to plant a tree in Israel.

When Ramon, who was neither Orthodox nor Shabbat -observant, decided that, as a representative of the entire Jewish people and “as an act of solidarity with Jewish tradition,” he would observe Shabbat in space, several fascinating halachic and other issues arose. Out of respect for Rick Husband, his mission commander, Ramon first sought his permission to observe Shabbat, and Husband responded by not only giving his wholehearted approval for Ramon’s Shabbat (and kashrut) observance but also consulted with a rabbi to learn about the details of the rituals to make certain that Ramon was doing them correctly.

The first, and most fundamental, question was related to the fact that with the Columbia orbiting Earth every 90 minutes, a “day” (including a sunrise and sunset) would pass every hour and a half – which meant that Shabbat would occur every 10.5 hours, which would translate into no less than 36 Shabbat days during the 16-day mission. Ramon consulted with Rabbi Zvi Konikov, a Chabad rabbi who assisted him in drafting a letter to leading rabbanim seeking a formal halachic ruling on the question. Moreover, the “seeing three stars” Shabbat standard would not work because the myriad stars of space would be perpetually visible to Ramon for the entire space flight.

Although there had previously been several Jews and Jewish observances in space, none of them had observed Shabbat and, although rabbanim had previously debated the question in a theoretical sense, this was the first time that the question was squarely presented as a relevant halachic question. The consensus response was that the time for beginning Shabbat is not based on when a person sees the sun set but rather on the 24-hour rotation of the Earth and upon the time in effect at Cape Canaveral (later renamed Cape Kennedy) from where Ramon would be launched (i.e., Eastern Standard Time).

However, some rabbis concluded that because Ramon will be in space, “Earth rules” don’t apply at all. Other rabbis argued that because halacha elevates the preservation of life over all religious rituals, and Ramon and his crewmates could potentially be endangered by his Shabbat observance, he should not observe Shabbat at all. Moreover, although Rav Levy Yitzhak Halperin, then head of the Israel-based Institute of Science and Halacha, agreed with this conclusion as a general principle, he argued that the rule did not apply to Ramon because, as an Israeli citizen living in Israel, the seven-day Shabbat calculation would be based upon “Jerusalem mean time.” At the end of the day, Ramon decided to keep Shabbat in accordance with the time in Houston (an hour earlier than in Cape Canaveral) because that was where he was being trained for his mission.

Handwritten Kiddush by Ramon that he took with him aboard the Challenger.

Echoing Neil Armstrong’s historic first statement upon taking man’s first step on the moon, Rabbi Konikov said that Ramon’s Shabbat observance would be “a small step by Colonel Ramon, but a large step for Judaism and Jews worldwide.” On his first Shabbat in space, Ramon recited Kiddush from the text that he insisted on writing in his own hand specially for the occasion. Since the lack of gravity made it impossible for him to pour the wine into the Kiddish cup he brought aboard, the rabbis advised him that it would be permissible for him to leave the wine in the bottle and use a straw to drink. Amazingly, investigators found Ramon’s handwritten Shabbat Kiddush among the pages of handwritten Hebrew miraculously recovered after the Columbia explosion (see exhibit).

Ramon was the first person to request kosher food in space: “As an Israeli and a Jew, I asked NASA if it would be possible to supply kosher food for my menu in space… I was surprised and overwhelmed with the effort NASA put in trying to accommodate my request. NASA has found kosher food suitable to fly in space and will supply me with kosher food during the flight.” In one interview, he said: “We have to find a way to bring our people closer together, to show more patience and understanding. I hope that my eating kosher will send a message of willingness to do so.”

NASA personnel were originally perplexed and at a loss about how to accommodate him, but it eventually made an arrangement with My Own Meals, a company outside Chicago that sold certified kosher food in thermo-stabilized sealed pouches for campers.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav was quoted as saying, “Ramon became a Jewish international hero, not just because he participated in the shuttle mission, but because of the symbolism he brought to the mission by his decision to honor the Jewish heritage through the objects he brought with him and the respect he showed for the Jewish religion while in space.” The highly symbolic Jewish artifacts he took with him aboard the Columbia included a Sefer Torah, a Holocaust moon drawing, a special mezuzah, a credit-card sized microfiche of the entire Pentateuch given to him by Katsav, and a shaliach mitzvah dollar that he specifically requested from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

It is said that every Sefer Torah has its own mazel and own story, and the backstory of the scroll that Ramon took with him into space is particularly poignant.

One morning before dawn in the barracks of Bergen-Belson, Jewish prisoners began their celebration of Joachim Joseph’s secret bar mitzvah by covering the windows with blankets and lighting four candles. Rav Shimon Dasberg, who had clandestinely prepared the young man for this great Jewish moment in his life, unrolled the tiny (less than five inches) Sefer Torah that he had managed to hide from the Nazis, and Joseph softly layned his parsha from the scroll. His bar mitzvah “kiddush” consisted of a piece of chocolate that someone had specially saved for the occasion.

After the ceremony, Rabbi Dasberg gave his little Torah scroll to Joseph, explaining that while he was certain that he would not survive the war, he thought Joseph might have a chance. The rabbi requested that, if he survived, Joseph was to tell the story to the world and, after initially declining because he feared taking on such an awesome responsibility, he was eventually persuaded by the Rav. R. Dasberg was murdered less than two months before the British liberated Bergen-Belsen, but Joseph survived, made aliyah, and became a respected physicist at Tel Aviv University specializing in radiation and desert aerosols, but for many years he never talked about the Holocaust or his experiences in the concentration camp.

In an extraordinary and stunning stroke of fate, Ramon visited Joseph at his home to discuss experiments that would be performed on the shuttle, and he happened to notice the little Sefer Torah and asked about it. Thunderstruck by Joseph’s story, Ramon asked him if he could take the scroll into space, and Joseph readily agreed, happy that his promise to Rav Dasberg would be fulfilled.

When he spoke with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during a live televised news conference from the Columbia, he pulled out the Torah scroll, told its story to the world, and stated “that “it is very, very important to preserve our historical tradition, and I mean our historical and religious traditions” and that the scroll “represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive. From horrible periods, black days, to reach periods of hope and belief in the future.” Sadly, when the Columbia exploded and Ramon was killed, the Sefer Torah was destroyed.


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When Ramon was asked by S. Isaac Mekel, director of development at the American Society for Yad Vashem, to take an item from Yad Vashem onto the Columbia, he selected Moon Landscape, a pencil sketch drawn by Petr Ginz, a 14-year-old “half-Jewish” child – only his father was Jewish, but he was Jewish enough for Hitler – who was deported to Terezin/Theresienstadt before being assigned to one of the last transports to Auschwitz, where he was murdered in the gas chambers in 1944. Moon Landscape was a copy of a remarkably accurate picture of the Earth the way Ginz, a talented artist, imagined it would look if viewed from the moon (the original sketch is in the Yad Vashem Museum). Ginz’s roommate at Theresienstadt, who survived the war, kept some of his drawings and paintings and gave them to the Ginz family after the war, who donated the works to Yad Vashem.

Ginz, who attended the Jewish elementary school in Prague, was an incredible polymath who wrote and illustrated five novels between the ages of eight and fourteen. After his deportation to Theresienstadt, he established and was chief editor of and regular contributor to Vedem (“We Lead”), a secret camp magazine that was published every Friday for two years. He also assembled a comprehensive Esperanto-to-Czech dictionary; authored several short novels; and wrote Rambles through Theresienstadt, in which he interviews various people in the camp people and comments on people, buildings, and the crematorium. The amazing breadth of his interests included literature, history, art, geography, sociology and technical fields. His diary, which has been favorably compared to the far better-known Diary of Anne Frank, survived the Holocaust and was published in English under the name: The Diary of Petr Ginz 1941-1942. Ironically, the Columbia broke apart on February 1, 2003, which would have been Ginz’s 75th birthday.

In 2018, American astronaut Drew Feustel, who had worked with Ramon for a short time, took a copy of Ginz’s Moon Landscape with him on the International Space Station. Yad Vashem presented Feustel with the drawing on February 1, 2018, the date that would have been Ginz’s 90th birthday, and he commented, “I feel honored to commemorate Petr, Ilan and all the victims of the Holocaust in this way.”

The barbed wire mezuzah that Ramon took with him into space – he joked about affixing it to the shuttle door – was by San Francisco Artist Aimee Golant, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. An interfaith advocate and sixth-generation metal artist, one of her highest honors was receiving the commission to create the mezuzah for the front door of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Golant’s mezuzah was selected for the Columbia by the 1939 Club, a Holocaust survivor organization dedicated to Shoah remembrance and education that also provides basic provisions and healthcare for elderly Holocaust survivors.

Excerpt from Ramon’s diary written upon seeing Israel from space: “The Land of Israel that is analogous to the Nation of Israel in accordance with the Torah, and the words of the Prophets – the Jewish People.”

In what many consider an unfathomable miracle, 37 pages from the diary that Ramon was keeping while in orbit survived the explosion of the Columbia, endured the extreme atmospheric conditions as it hurtled 38 miles to Earth, and survived two months of exposure to the elements on the ground before it was found in a field in San Augustine, Texas. The diary was returned to Ramon’s widow, Rona, who turned it over to Israeli forensic specialists, who worked for over four years painstakingly piecing together the cardboard-covered, three-ring journal. After they successfully reconstructed approximately 30 pages using computer image-enhancement technology and infrared light, Rona donated them to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where, after being publicly exhibited, they were permanently housed in the Museum’s Document Preservation Center.

Israel souvenir leaf marking the inauguration of the Ramon International Airport in Eilat.

Sadly, members of Ramon’s family similarly suffered a premature and unfortunate end. One of his four children, 21-year-old son Asaf, died in 2009 during a routine training flight while piloting an F-16A, three months after graduating from flight school at the top of his class, and Rona died of pancreatic cancer in 2018 at age 54. Ramon International Airport, named for Ilan and Asaf and located in the Timna Valley about 11 miles north of Eilat, was inaugurated on January 21, 2019. In 2013, a memorial and museum for Ramon was opened as part of the new Machtesh Ramon (“Ramon crater”) visitor center, and there are any number of streets and parks throughout Israel similarly named for him.

Ramon’s grave in Nahalal.

However, the plan to name a space center in the Arab-Israeli city of Taibe for him failed when Israeli Arab citizens protested that “dedicating a center in his honor in an Arab community is a tasteless and unjustified move” given that, during his service in the Israeli military, Ramon had “bombed civilian populations in Arab states” and “flew in the 1981 airstrike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor during the first Lebanon war.” These are the same Arabs who celebrated Ramon’s death when the Columbia exploded and against whom NASA acknowledged it had to take extraordinary efforts because a Jewish astronaut sitting atop a U.S. shuttle loaded with 500,000 gallons of rocket fuel is an obvious target for Arab terrorists.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].