13 years ago: the story of the „Columbia” Space shuttle and the first Israeli Astronaut, late Col. Ilan Ramon. This coming month, the IAF site will commemorate every step of the journey, from the historic take off to the tragic crash
The story of the first Israeli Astronaut, the late Col. Ilan Ramon, has been written in IAF’s history book and space history books and the tragedy of the „Columbia” space shuttle has been engraved in Israel’s memory. In the coming month, 13 years after the launch and crash, the IAF website will dive back into the past and commemorate Columbia’s milestones.
13 years ago, on January 16, the space shuttle successfully took off. On the night of the launch, in 2003, an IAF Magazine writer and a small group of reporters were lucky enough to escort the first Israeli Astronaut to his journey to space and witness the launch.
„In an unforgettable moment, the team members emerged from the operations building where they were kept in solitude from the outside world, from their friends and family, days before the launch. Ramon was smiling and excited. Wearing an orange astronaut suit, he walked with determination, as if he didn’t want to wait a single second, for the historic flight he waited and trained for over four and a half long years”, wrote Noam Keren, the IAF Magazine’s representative in the launch site. „The seven marched as a unified group. Ramon looked at us, waved hello and said: 'wish us luck'. He was ecstatic. None of us could imagine that this would be our last time seeing Ilan”.
„Like his many friends and family members, I also had the honor to witness the beginning of Col. Ramon’s journey to space. There is no experience in the world that can prepare a person for the vision of a space shuttle launching. I will never forget the day of the launch, January 16 and the exact moment the engines ignited, 10:39 AM. The light that came from the 'Columbia' space shuttle rockets was white and blinding. The thunder from the engines went on for a few seconds resembled hundreds of combat aircraft taking off at once. It was a chilly morning and Ilan was so happy. He left planet earth with a perfect take off to the blue skies, which he loved so much. Outside of planet earth, Ramon took with him his love for his family and pride in his country. That is how he began his greatest adventure from which he did not return. Always in the skies. Always in our memory”.
Who will get to fulfill their childhood dream?
The story of the first Israeli Astronaut started years before the launch of the „Columbia”. In fact, it began with the Prime Minister Shimon Peres' visit to Washington in 1995, where he offered then U.S President Bill Clinton, to integrate Israeli astronauts in the experimental flight to space.
Choosing an astronaut was a challenge within itself. „We received dozens of applications from people that volunteered for the mission, some of which were reserve pilots and others past commando combatants”, Col. (Res.) Avi Har Even, former head of the Israel Space Academy recalled. „I met with Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, the IAF Commander and we decided to search for an IAF serviceman that would fit the Space Academy’s demands”.
Choosing late Col. Ilan Ramon was almost obvious. „The moment Ilan’s application came in for the job, he practically beat the rest of the applicants at that moment. If we were to hold a vote he would have been chosen then”, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Avner Nave shared with IAF Magazine in February, 2003. As Head of the Air Division, he had a part in the decision of choosing Ramon as the first Israeli Astronaut.
Col. Ilan Ramon and his family had five long years in Huston, until the moment he stepped onto the „Columbia” space shuttle, for 16 days without gravity. The exercises in preparation for the mission included lessons about operating the space shuttle in every stage of flight, from take-off to landing, lessons about experiments they would be conducting in space, two of which were experiments created by Israeli scientists from Tel Aviv University. In addition, they completed training exercises to prepare them for the long work days in space.
„Sometimes I wonder, so many exercises for 16 days?” Col. Ilan Ramon wrote days before take-off. „The answer is, we have to get into the details to understand how complicated this operation is”
Author: Zohar Boneh | Translation by: Ofri Aharon