Seven Years without Ilan Seven Years without Ilan On Monday, 1st February, a memorial service will be held in Nahalal cemetery for Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, seven years after he was killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Gal Goldstein

In January 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on mission STS-107. The shuttle disintegrated on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and Colonel Ramon was killed alongside six other crew members.

Ramon was chosen to be Israel’s first astronaut in 1998. He left for Houston, Texas together with his wife Rona and their four children, Assaf, Tal, Yiftach and Noah. There he began his training with NASA in preparation for his flight into space.

Throughout his training at the space center, Colonel Ramon wrote a regular column for the Israeli Air Force magazine: “From this week on, following Space Shuttle Endeavour’s launch, we are ‘Prime Crew’, in other words we are the team that will man the next flight into space! We, of course, are the staff of space flight STS-107. Everything seems to be progressing well and everyone is doing their best to make sure that the launch will take place on time. The last we heard from those responsible at NASA was that their intention was to launch on time at any cost, even if that includes working through holidays and all that entails (but not, of course at the cost of safety issues)” he wrote, in his final column which was published in December 2002. “True, we were supposed to be in space a year ago. But, the nature of things is that the training and preparation are built in levels, with more and more content as the launch approaches. This time everyone feels that it’s really going to happen, though the true excitement still has not started. The most experienced astronauts here at NASA say that the real excitement only starts when you go down to Cape Canaveral in isolation, a few days before the launch. I can tell you that everyone is looking forward to that moment, so cross your fingers for us!  See you after the landing”.

Colonel Ramon’s son, Lieutenant Assaf Ramon, graduated from pilot school with honors, receiving his wings in a ceremony which took place in June 2009. On 13th September 2009, Assaf Ramon’s aircraft crashed during a training exercise next to Pnei Hever, in the southern Hebron hills. This year, for the first time, father and son, who are buried side by side in Nahalal cemetery, will be mourned together.

“Another memorial, and again I’m amazed by how much time has passed. It’s already six years without you, we’ve progressed and developed, and it’s hard to think that we’ve lived without you for so long”, said Assaf Ramon at his father’s memorial last year. “Sometimes I think of what you would say to us now, and immediately I see an image of you: a big smile, full of pride, and rightly so. Noah and Yiftach are growing up and sometimes remind us of you, without knowing that they are doing it. Tal is in the IDF and I’m very proud of him and the strength he shows. There are no words to describe the love that my mother, Rona, your eternal love, shows for us and for you. I’m on my own path, following in your footsteps”.

Ilan Ramon graduated IAF Pilot Training in 1974, with honors. He took part in Operation “Opera”, the air strike that destroyed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor, and was the youngest pilot who took part in the mission. A year later he took part in the First Lebanon War. In 1988 he graduated from Tel Aviv University and returned to service in the IAF, where he was appointed second-in-command of the “Bat” Squadron which flew Phantom aircraft (in Hebrew “Kornas”, literally sledgehammer), from Tel Nof Airfield. In 1990, he was placed in charged of the “1st Jet” Squadron, which flew the F-16 (in Hebrew “Barak”, meaning lightning) from Ramat David Airbase. In 1992 he was appointed head of the Aircraft Branch in IAF Headquarters, and in 1994 was promoted to the rank of colonel. His final role in the IAF was as head of the Weaponry Department.