After years in journalism, interviewing heads of state and religious leaders (and seeing feet of clay on a fair number of both) I don’t usually get too jazzed about talking even to the "important" folks. But despite attempts to stay cool and professional, interviewing Col. Ilan Ramon was a plain old thrill.
After weeks of requests through the Johnson Space Center’s bureaucracy, one September day a press relations person called with the news that I had a half-hour to interview Colonel Ramon the next day.
The colonel couldn’t have been nicer. Though reporters had already interviewed him umpteen times, Colonel Ramon was low key and warm during our phone conversation. He seemed charming and sweet, and a man humbled by his responsibilities.
As soon as we hung up I was bubbling with excitement, telling anyone at The Jewish Week who would listen, and my husband and son, who I had just been interviewing.
Why was it so exciting to speak with this remarkably down-to-earth astronaut?
At a time when hope in anything sure and good often feels as distant as the sun in winter, it felt like I was talking to a hero, someone doing work for the betterment of all humanity, someone who, in Lincoln’s words, represented the better agenls of our nature.
In a chatty interview, Colonel Ramon seemed at ease being in the public eye even as he maintained boundaries of privacy. He spoke freely about how eager he was to return to Israel, where he and his wife, Rona, were building a house in Ramat Gan to go back to with their four children, Assaf, Tal, Yiftach and Noa.
After years of living in Texas while he trained for this mission, Colonel Ramon and his family planned to head home as soon as his work at the Space Center was finished, two months after he expected to touch down.
"I hope," he said, "to be back in time" for their second child’s bat mitzvah.
Colonel Ramon appreciated the symbolic importance of being Israel’s first astronaut, choosing to keep kosher in space though he didn’t on earth because he wanted to represent all Jews, he said.
To honor his mother and other Holocaust survivors, he took with him a drawing by a boy named Petr Gintz, who even while imprisoned in hell sketched a beautiful image of what he imagined earth would look like from the moon, along with a miniature Torah scroll that had survived the war: both testaments to the human capacity for hope.
Colonel Ramon also took an Israeli flag and a small menorah given to him by Israeli President Moshe Katzav. He took some small personal gifts from his family, too, all of which were to be packed under the Columbia’s floor during the mission. When gently pressed he said his wife had given him a necklace. The gifts from his children, he said in a friendly tone, he wanted to keep private.
He was excited about the experiments he was conducting, particularly one from Tel Aviv University measuring atmospheric dust to assess its impact on global warming and the climate of the Middle East.
Now all that remains are twisted pieces of metal, body parts scattered through Texas and, in what is at once the disaster’s most horrifying and poignant photo, a charred helmet that came crashing to earth.
It’s hard to believe that this handsome young hero is gone. It’s even harder to imagine the thoughts and images that his wife and four young children must now endure.
"I’m not frightened," Colonel Ramon said in our interview. "The Challenger happened once, and we are going to be the 112th mission. It’s much safer than driving your car, so I’m not worried."
He planned to have in his pocket during launch a copy of the Jewish traveler’s prayer for a safe journey, Tefillat Haderech, he told me. And though he made it clear that he was not a particularly religious man, he said, "Maybe I’ll take a look at it prior to launch."
As we finished our interview, I told Colonel Ramon that saying "goodbye" just didn’t feel sufficient. We both laughingly said nesiyah tova (Hebrew for "have a good trip") at the same time. As we hung up a moment later, my parting words were nesiyah tova v’bitucha: a good and safe journey.
But in the end no good wishes, no holy words carried close, no prayers and no blessings, were enough to bring this hero to his nation, this husband and father home to those who need him still.