Israel Piloted Spaceflight
Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, was born on June 20, 1954 in Ramat Gan in Tel Aviv, and grew up in Beersheva. He graduated from high school in 1972. He then joined the Israel Air Force. He fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and graduated as a fighter pilot from the Israel Air Force Flight School in 1974. He completed an Israeli Air Force pilot's course with honors in 1974 and served as a fighter pilot with the IAF, ultimately attaining the rank of Colonel. Over the next nine years, he gained experience in flying the A-4, F-16 and Mirage III-C aircraft, which included time training at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
As a young pilot he participated in the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Then, he attended the University of Tel Aviv from 1983 to 1987, where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science. On earning his degree he joined the Lavi fighter jet development team. In 1988 he returned to the IAF where he held a number of senior posts, including Squadron Commander, F-16 Squadron and Head of the Department of Operational Requirement for Weapon Development and Acquisition. Ramon compiled more than 4,000 flight hours in Israeli military aircraft.
In 1997 he was selected to be an astronaut. Ramon's selection as the first Israeli astronaut, in the framework of a 1995 cooperation agreement between the Israel Space Agency and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), made him a celebrated Israeli success story. Ramon and his backup, Yitzhak Mayo, were chosen for the mission in 1997 after extensive screening and testing. In 1998 Ramon, accompanied by his family, went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas for astronaut training. He was assigned to be a payload specialist on the Columbia space shuttle – a mission for which he spent four and a half years training. He said that he and most Israelis never dreamed of becoming astronauts. "Well, when I was a kid," Ramon said, "? most of the people wouldn't dream of being an astronaut because it wasn't on the agenda. So I never thought I would've been an astronaut. I'm a pilot, a fighter pilot, in my background. And I love to fly! Flying aircrafts, fighter aircraft, is great. And I was very happy. I've never dreamed to be an astronaut. When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space."
When Israel Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon was asked what it was like to be selected as the first Israeli astronaut, he said that he felt like he was a representative of his home country. "I think it's very, very peculiar to be the first Israeli up in space," he said. "Especially because of my background. But my background is kind of a symbol of a lot of other Israelis' background. My mother is a Holocaust survivor. She was in Auschwitz. My father fought for the independence of Israel not so long ago. I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for and we've been going through in the last century -- or maybe in the last two thousand years -- is becoming true.
"And I was talking to a lot of, for instance, Holocaust survivors. And when you talk to these people who are pretty old today, and you tell them that you're going to be in space as an Israeli astronaut, they look at you as a dream that they could have never dreamed of. So, it's very exciting for me to be able to fulfill their dream that they wouldn't dare to dream. So, it is very exciting. Very exciting."
Ramon trained until he made his first space flight in January 2003. On January 16, 2003 the Columbia space shuttle was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with seven astronauts on board, including Ramon – who thus became the first Israeli astronaut in space. He served as a payload specialist during STS-107 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. The STS-107 crew conducted more than 80 experiments during the scientific research mission. While in orbit, he talked about the view of planet Earth and the need to take care of it. "The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile," Ramon said. "The atmosphere is so thin and fragile, and I think all of us have to keep it clean and good. It saves our life and gives our life."
Ramon and his six crewmates perished on Feb. 1, 2003, over Texas as Columbia was re-entering Earth's atmosphere en-route to landing in Florida. Ramon spent 15 days, 22 hours and 20 minutes in space. He was survived by his wife Rona and their four children. He was 48 years old at the time of his death, and was buried in the Nahalal Military Cemetery.
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