Growing up in Beersheva, Ilan Ramon didn’t dream, as little boys in America did in the 1950s and 1960s, of being an astronaut. After all, no Israeli had ever been launched into space. He dreamt of flying, though, and soon learned to soar over his tiny country as a much-decorated Air Force pilot.
Now Ramon, 48, will do what he dared not even dream: He will travel into space.
Ramon will go aboard the shuttle Columbia on a research mission, sent by the Israeli government to oversee several of the flight’s 80 experiments, which include one created by Tel Aviv University to gauge the amount of aerosol dust in the atmosphere and its impact on global warming.
"I’m very lucky to go to space, and to be the first one from Israel to go," said the affable colonel in an interview from the "astronaut office" at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It’s more than just a scientific mission, since I am the first. I represent the State of Israel and the Jewish community. I feel I have a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders."
The shuttle was slated to launch in July but has been tentatively rescheduled for Jan. 16. Tiny cracks in part of the aircraft are being analyzed and repaired.
Since 1998, Ramon has been training in Houston, where his four children attend public school and as a family they occasionally attend a Conservative synagogue. He is eager to return with them to Ramat Gan, which Ramon hopes to do by the spring, after the 16-day mission and the one or two months of debriefing and becoming reacclimated to life back on the ground.
The fact that Ramon, who readily admits he is not observant on Earth, has requested kosher food for his trip has received much press attention. And while some kosher food is being specially prepared and packaged for him (mostly chicken dishes) he will usually follow the basic rules of not mixing dairy and meat products.
"I’m representing Israel and the Jewish people," Ramon says, "and even though I’m secular, I appreciate everything related to religion, so I’m trying to represent everybody" during his mission.
Ramon won’t be the only one aboard the Columbia ingesting a special menu. While most of the seven-member crew will chow down on grilled pork chops and shrimp cocktail, India-born Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla will consume only vegetarian dishes, including baked tofu and curried vegetables, according to the NASA Web site.
Every astronaut gets assigned some space to bring personal effects, and Ramon will bring some that are symbolic and others that are more intimate. Packed under the floor will be a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a menorah flag given to him by Israel’s president, the country’s emblem and the flags of the towns in which he was born and raised, Ramat Gan and Beersheva.
He will take with him, too, a copy of the drawing "Moonscape," which shows a view of Earth from the perspective of the moon made by a young boy while in Theresienstadt. Petr Ginz was murdered in Auschwitz at age 14 but before he died, he drew 120 pictures that were hidden away and retrieved by a child survivor. The pictures were later sent to Petr’s parents, who had survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel in the 1950s. They donated the drawings to Yad Vashem, which brought "Moonscape" to Ramon’s attention.
Ramon’s mother is an Auschwitz survivor. "It’s close to me and I decided to take something for the memory of the Six Million," he said.
Also packed away will be some personal items given to him by his wife, Rona, and their children aged 14, 12, 9 and 5. Rona gave him a necklace, he said, but Ramon prefers to keep the items from his children private.
Has preparing to travel into space, where he will be closer to the wonders of the universe than most people can get, prompted any religious fervor?
"It hasn’t yet changed my spiritual life," said Ramon. "We’ll see what happens afterward."
Ramon, though not given to regular prayer, will carry a tiny book of Psalms and a copy of the Jewish prayer for safe travel, Tefillat HaDerech, in his pocket.
"Maybe," he said, "I’ll take a look at it prior to the launch anyway."