Israel mourns a hero

The news hit Israel hard. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered his prayers for Col. Ilan Ramon and his family as the news rippled through the country. In one Jerusalem café, faces tightened as the news traveled down the counter. "An Israeli in space," said Mayan, a waitress, "What were we thinking?"

She gave voice to the despair many here felt at the news of the Space Shuttle Columbia's destruction and Col. Ramon's death: that their hopes for one uplifting piece of news were foolhardy.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grinding into its third year, a regional war on the horizon, and the economy in tatters, Israelis are starved for reasons to feel good about themselves. For a short time, Ramon gave it to them.

The youthful-looking son of a Holocaust survivor, Ramon was something of an ambassador at a time when Israelis are yearning for a less controversial image abroad. The ongoing conflict has strained Israel's ties with some countries and triggered deep anxieties about anti-Semitism. Some Israelis worry that harsh international criticism and boycotts are making their country a pariah state.

By participating in an international foray into space, Ramon gave Israelis a chance to see themselves not only as a normal country, but also as part of the larger world community. After the Columbia was in orbit, Mission Control radioed up "a big welcome to Ilan as you join the international community of human spaceflight," a greeting that the Israeli media savored. And as Israel's first astronaut, Ramon was breaking new ground. The media avidly reported on all aspects of his adventure, from the e-mail he sent from space to Israel's President Moshe Katsav, to the packages of kosher chicken he ate for dinner, the Torah he took with him and his religious observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

The Jan. 16 launch was marked by a large gathering at a Tel Aviv University auditorium, where the liftoff was broadcast live on a giant screen. Students, professors, air force officers, and government ministers squeezed into the room, shouting out the countdown with the Houston control room and erupting into cheers with the word "Liftoff!" Ramon was a hero even before he took to space. As a fighter pilot, he represented the best of Israel's military. As a veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1981 strike against an Iraqi nuclear station, he was part of an elite group.

His military background caused some controversy as the media questioned why a military man with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and not a scientist or researcher, had been chosen. The source of the funding for his mission is not entirely clear, giving rise to more grumbling. And some scientists argued that while NASA makes it clear that research conducted on the shuttles is not meant to have military applications, Ramon's work on dust storms does, particularly when it comes to taking photos from the air or space. But the complaints were all but lost in the wave of Israel pride. The Columbia launch was "a triumph for the Jewish people and the State of Israel," education minister Limor Livnat told the crowd at the Tel Aviv screening. In Houston, Israel's ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon described his pride in watching the launch. "The skies were painted blue and white," he said, in a reference to the colors of the Israeli flag.

Ramon's wife Rona, who was at the Kennedy Space Center with their four children on Saturday, was also there when the launch blasted into space. At the time, she told reporters that she couldn't wait for the 16-day mission to end. "I don't want to talk about fear," she told reporters. "I'm sure NASA is doing everything that is possible not to take any risk and any chances. The most calm and relaxed person is Ilan." After watching the launch, she came down from the roof to find a phone message Ramon had left her shortly before taking off. "See you in February," it said.

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