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
Zohar Boneh | Translation by: Ofri Aharon
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.
The first day of February, landing day. The euphoric feeling that encompassed Israel was at its peak. Like a parent who awaits their child to come back from the battlefield, or stands on the parade ground watching their son receive their pilot wings, tens of thousands of people were anticipating the opportunity to see the national hero’s smile as he returned to planet earth.
As the words in Rona Ramon’s, Ilans widowe, book “Heaven Above Us”, read: “10 seconds and we were counting down: 10, 9, 8, 7… and nothing happened. There was movement in the crowd and everything was terribly silent. We are asked to assemble. The radio is disconnected and no one knew why. People started crying. And I looked up to the sky and said in my heart: God, please bring him back to me”.
The late Col. Ilan Ramon did not return from this mission. The pilot that was the last one in the formation to drop a bomb on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, The first and only Israeli astronaut, got as far as possible, fulfilled a childhood dream and left two hurting families: his own family and the IAF family.
Today, 13 years later, the significance of the name ‘Ilan Ramon’ is greater than just the first Israeli astronaut or his dedication to the country and science. In moments, Ramon unfortunately became from a source of national pride to a “Blue and White” myth.
Ilan, the man: excited, happy and full of life to whom the sky was not the limit, a man who believed in education and more than anything love for his country. A symbol of the “beautiful Israeli”: astronaut, family man, a true Patriot.
Rest in Peace
“It’s great to wander but better to come back”,
Few are the Israeli artists that can say that their song was played in space. During the “Columbia” Mission, three Israeli songs requested by late Col. Ilan Ramon were played. A song by the “Hahalonot Hagvohim” (The High Windows) band and Arik Einstein were already played. On January 31, right as they were flying over Israel, the song “Hello, Great Land” an Israeli song about Israel, by Yehoram Gaon was played and the astronauts started their 16th day in space acquainted by the Hebrew words “it’s great to wander but better to come back”, as they were planning their landing.
Less than a day was left before landing in Florida and the excitement was at its peak. The world was counting the hours before the planned landing and there was great excitement in the space shuttle, too.
Col. Ilan Ramon wrote his last letter before landing to his family: “space is great, the feeling is amazing, the views are unbelievable, the flying is incredible and the team is exceptional, but it’s always best to return home! In a few hours we will go to sleep on our last night in space and about five hours after we awake – we will land! So I am coming, love you and see you soon!”.
The ground chemist team members were just as excited, waiting for the evidences the astronauts collected for the chemists to work on. The team on the shuttle completed almost all their experiments and reported great success.
After hearing the song, Col. Ilan Ramon’s voice was heard on the radio wishing everyone a good morning and explaining the meaning of the song to his team members in English.
“The song says: I have been everywhere, but there is no place like Israel”. Afterwards, he took the opportunity to conclude the mission. “I would like to take this opportunity to say that there is no commander like ours, Rick (Husband). He always talks about others and respects others so I would like to give him and his family respect. He was concerned for the mission, his family and my family simultaneously. So thank you very much, Rick”.
“Sprites” and “Upper-Atmospheric Lightening” in the Sky
13 years ago (January 28) some of the best observations that were filmed by late Col. Ilan Ramon and the rest of the space shuttle team, were documented during the second and successful Israeli experiment.
“After considering our options, we decided that we can’t depend on one experiment”, shared Col. (res.) Avi Har Even, former Head of Israel Space Agency. “We couldn’t know what the weather conditions would be”.
The experiment included observation of light flashes, hundreds of kilometers high over lightning storms.
“NASA’s researchers accepted this idea, because the subject had barely been investigated”, explained Col. (res.) Har Even.
In fact, the flashes were divided into two categories: “Sprites” that were described by Professor Asaf, then Geophysics and Planetary Science professor in the Tel Aviv University, as a huge, red “jellyfish” in the sky, at 70 kilometers long and diameter of 30, with the life span of less than a second. The second category is “Upper-Atmospheric Lightning”, a circular flash of light that begins from one point and spreads within milliseconds to a ring with the diameter of up to 700 kilometers and disappears.
Throughout the mission, there were routines appearances of “upper-atmospheric lightning” and the “sprites”, however at the beginning of the mission, the astronauts discovered the technique they used to capture the appearances were unsuccessful. Thus, the astronauts offered another technique: a handheld camera rather than a video camera. Thanks to the change, the mission was successful.
The “Colombia” astronauts’ daily routine was mostly made up of executing over 60 different experiments, most of which were initiated by American scientists. One of the experiments was Israeli and led by scientists from Tel-Aviv University, an experiment which received the name MIDX (Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment) and took place today (26.1) 13 years ago.
The experiment checked the effects of dust storms on climate. “These are the exact storms that we have every spring”, explained Col. (Res) Avi Har Even, former Head of the Israel Space Agency. “They have quite an impact on the climate and the agriculture in Israel and the world”.
Actually, these dust storms which may seem unimportant are extremely influential on a number of phenomena. For example, the desert dust is a great candidate for action against global warming, because it cools the air and ground. Additionally, the dust is the main source for Iron (the mineral) for fauna and sea creatures, when it sinks in the ocean. This experiment had to be done from space because inside the atmosphere, the measurements would be inaccurate and influenced by different variables.
Although weathermen usually don’t hope for dust storms, while the shuttle was in space, a team of over 200 scientists kept their fingers crossed for such winds. The experiment, which cost about 10 Million Dollars, was dependent on the existence of these storms, which did not occur for 9 days.
The scientists were positioned in four different places, one on the shuttle, a team of scientists in the U.S, a team in Tel-Aviv University and in an IAF aircraft which was supposed to measure the data in real time and create a full situational picture. Each of the teams and many others let out a sigh of relief on this day, because Col. Ilan Ramon was able to finally document dust in Africa’s western coast.
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”.