Ilan Ramon (June 20, 1954 – February 1, 2003; Hebrew: אילן רמון, born Ilan Wolferman) was a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, and later the first Israeli astronaut.
Ramon was the space shuttle payload specialist of STS-107, the fatal mission of Columbia, in which he and six other crew members were killed in the re-entry accident. Ramon is the only foreign recipient of the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
Ramon was born in Ramat Gan, Israel, and grew up in Beersheba. His mother and grandmother were survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. His first name, Ilan, means "tree" in Hebrew. Ilan changed his last name from Wolferman when he joined the IAF just as many other Israeli aviators.
Ramon graduated from high school in 1972. In 1987, he graduated with a B.Sc. degree in electronics and computer engineering from Tel Aviv University.
Air Force career
Ilan Ramon was a Colonel (Aluf Mishne) and fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, with thousands of hours flying experience. In 1974, he graduated as a fighter pilot from the Israel Air Force (IAF) Flight School. From 1974–76 he participated in A-4 Basic Training and Operations. 1976–80 was spent in Mirage III-C training and operations. In 1980, as one of the IAF's establishment team of the first F-16 Squadron in Israel, he attended the F-16 Training Course at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. From 1981–83, he served as the Deputy Squadron Commander B, F-16 Squadron.
In 1981 he was the youngest pilot taking part in Operation Opera, Israel's strike against Iraq's unfinished Osiraq nuclear reactor. The facility was destroyed, killing ten Iraqi soldiers and one French researcher.
After attending the Tel Aviv University, he served as Deputy Squadron Commander A, 119 Squadron, flying the F-4 Phantom (1988–90). During 1990, he attended the Squadron Commanders Course and between 1990 and 1992, commanded 117 Squadron, flying the F-16. From 1992–94, he was Head of the Aircraft Branch in the Operations Requirement Department. In 1994, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel and assigned as Head of the Department of Operational Requirement for Weapon Development and Acquisition. He stayed at this post until 1998. Ramon accumulated over 3,000 flight hours on the A-4, Mirage III-C, and F-4, and over 1,000 flight hours on the F-16.
NASA on-ground trainings
In 1997, Ramon was selected as a Payload Specialist. He was designated to train as prime for a space shuttle mission with a payload that included a multispectral camera for recording desert aerosol (dust). In July 1998, he reported for training at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, where he trained until 2003. He flew aboard STS-107, logging 15 days, 22 hours and 20 minutes in space.
STS-107 Columbia (January 16 – February 1, 2003). The 16-day flight was a dedicated science and research mission. Working 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts, crew successfully conducted approximately 80 experiments.
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 at the Kennedy Space Center Memorial for Columbia on February 7, 2003.
The STS-107 mission ended abruptly when Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed and its crew perished during re-entry, 16 minutes before scheduled landing.
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 given to him by Israeli president Moshe Katsav and a miniature Torah scroll (from the Holocaust) that was given him by Prof. Yehoyachin Yosef, a Bergen Belsen survivor. Ramon asked the 1939 Club, a Holocaust survivor organization in Los Angeles, for a symbol of the Holocaust to take into outer space with him. A barbed wire mezuzah by the San Francisco artist Aimee Golant was selected. Ramon also took with him a dollar of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Ramon and the rest of the Columbia crew died over East Texas in the Southern United States during entry into Earth's atmosphere, 16 minutes prior to scheduled landing.
37 pages from the diary he was keeping while in orbit survived the crash and were returned to his widow, Rona, who has shared an excerpt with the Israeli public in a display at Jerusalem's Israel Museum. Rona Ramon brought it to Israel Museum forensic experts. Only two pages were displayed, one containing Ramon's notes, and the other is a copy of the Kiddush prayer. Curator Yigal Zalmona said the diary was partially restored in one year, and needed four more, for police scientists to decipher 80% of the text. Zalmona stated: "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, he said." Ramon wrote on the last day of the journal:
"Today was the first day that I felt that I am truly living in space. I have become a man who lives and works in space."
Inscribed in black ink and pencil, it covered just the first six days of the 16-day mission. The papers remained white even though, exposed at high speed 37 miles (60 km) above the Earth, they should have super-heated and burned. Other fragile items withstood the disaster as well, some even in a better shape, like a Caenorhabditis elegans worm culture, the only survivors of the accident are a damaged hard disk drive. This is a common occurrence in the debris trail of air disasters, where certain parts or objects in the aircraft are blown out of the vehicle and fall freely; when the Columbia disintegrated, she was already an aircraft (if exceptionally high and fast still) rather than a spacecraft.
Ramon was survived by his wife Rona and their four children, who were in Texas at the time of the accident. His eldest son, Captain Asaf Ramon, died on September 13, 2009, aged 21, during a routine training flight while piloting his F-16A, 3 months after graduating from the IAF flight school as the top cadet in his class.
Awards and honors
Posthumously awarded: NASA Space Flight Medal
In 2005, he was voted the 5th-greatest Israeli of all time, in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet to determine whom the general public considered the 200 Greatest Israelis.
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