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Journey of Hope: the Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel's First Astronaut

Journey of Hope: the Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel's First Astronaut

by Alan D Abbey

"Columbia is lost; there are no survivors" -- President George W Bush, 1 February 2003. Ramon's life stands as a beacon to those who despair of triumph in a difficult world. This book, whose creation began before the shuttle lifted off into space, chronicles Ramon's journey from air force pilot to astronaut, and includes NASA photographs, an interview with Ilan


"Columbia is lost; there are no survivors" -- President George W Bush, 1 February 2003. Ramon's life stands as a beacon to those who despair of triumph in a difficult world. This book, whose creation began before the shuttle lifted off into space, chronicles Ramon's journey from air force pilot to astronaut, and includes NASA photographs, an interview with Ilan Ramon, articles about Israel's space program and much more..

Editorial Reviews

AJL Newsletter
...in less than tree months, Alan Abbey... produced a 53-page biography including information about Ramon, Israel's space program, and the mission of the Columbia - all enhanced with beautiful color photographs. —Rachel Erlich Kamin
Judy Carr
This account may bring readers into deeper Jewish beliefs where the synagogue failed. Few will put this book aside until the last word is read. It will be more than a best seller. It is the tale of a true hero.
The Jewish Post and Opinion, July 25, 2003
Sybil Kaplan
This book is not very big in pages but it is particularly good reading for young adults and adults alike who were moved by the fatal flight and may be curious to know more about the decorated hero of Israel.
Jewish Journal, August 15, 2003
Get the book. It's short, concise, informative and moving.

Product Details

Gefen Publishing House
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Training and Waiting

By late 1999, plans were set for a 2001 launch for Ilan's flight, but few details about the mission were available. In 2000, Air Force Magazine revealed that Ilan was to be a crew member on Columbia, flight STS-107, then scheduled for launch in April or May 2001. NASA officially announced Ilan's participation in the crew, along with astronauts Mike Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, Dave Brown, and Laurel Clark, in September 2000. In December, NASA added Rick Husband and Willie McCool.

On a visit to Israel, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said Ilan would be launched into space May 23, 2002, instead of mid-2001 as had been originally intended.

The shuttle's orbit and launch window would be tailored to fit the science requirements for the Israeli-sponsored MEIDEX (Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment) project. The experiment was designed to test how dust particles from storms affect the climate of the Middle East. MEIDEX featured a specially calibrated video camera that would take images of the earth through six filters. The astronauts would look for dust and aim the camera. Meanwhile, scientists on the ground would fly aircraft through the dust storms to make additional measurements. NASA atmospheric scientist Jack Kaye said the data was expected to be valuable, and it wasn't something NASA would have done on its own, because of the intense effort required.

The decision to fly Ilan Ramon on the mission also meant a fundamental change in his activities as a crew member. Normally a guest astronaut-a "payload specialist" in NASA's vernacular-flies only to conduct a specific set of science experiments or to fill a role that can't be filled by a career NASA astronaut. A large percentage of payload specialists have been international astronauts, such as the Canadians that NASA has an agreement to fly each year.

Obviously no NASA astronaut could fill the political role of being an Israeli citizen, even though most could have been trained to operate MEIDEX. The MEIDEX experiment would only occupy Ilan during the portion of the day when the shuttle was flying over the Mediterranean Sea or the second area of interest over the eastern Atlantic Ocean. It would be absurd to have him aboard simply to conduct the MEIDEX experiment. So NASA and the Israeli Space Agency gave Ilan a promotion of sorts and made him a full payload crew member like the career NASA astronauts who would be assigned later. Ilan would learn how to operate many of the payloads and take a full workload like the other mission specialists. As a non-career astronaut Ilan wouldn't have any shuttle responsibilities, such as opening or closing the payload bay doors or going for emergency space-walk training.

Ilan was given mission specialist astronaut training along with the 1998 astronaut class and acquired the additional skills he would need to fulfill his role. "He's working as many payloads as anybody else on the flight," said Commander Rick Husband, who became a close friend of Ilan. "He's gone through a significant amount of training. I would say he's probably one of the best-trained payload specialists we've ever flown. Ilan is fully integrated into every aspect of the mission. He is not an observer; he's a full member of the crew in every way."

In June 2002, with yet more deadlines come and gone, NASA again delayed the flight. The shuttle, set for takeoff on July 19, was suspended because of small cracks found on part of the main propulsion systems on all four space shuttle vehicles: Atlantis, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour. The flight was to be delayed at least a few weeks to give NASA managers time to better understand the cracks. Then, when two International Space Station missions were given higher priority, the Columbia mission was pushed back in line, first to November, then December, and finally January. The technical problems, management decisions, and higher priority flights resulted in eighteen delays.

Ilan said everyone in the crew was eagerly awaiting the launch. "I'm sure everybody's excited to go-at least myself and my family," he said. "My family has had to sacrifice a lot. I have a lot of patience, and to be with these magnificent crew members is a pleasure. I don't want to be delayed again, but I'm sure we'll have a wonderful time together, as we have in the last two and a half years of training."

In December 2002, Ilan and the crew of STS-107 finally completed their dress rehearsal. It included a practice countdown with the launch team, inspections of the shuttle and the equipment the astronauts were to use in space, checks of the orange launch and entry suits the crew would wear, and lessons in how to drive the M-113 armored personnel carrier. The M-113 was stationed at the base of the launch pad for the launch. If a major emergency occurred at launch, the astronauts were to exit the shuttle and jump into wire baskets that would whisk them to the base of the launch pad. There they would enter a bomb shelter or get into the M-113 and drive as far away from the pad as quickly as possible. The irony, of course, was that the astronauts had no training or escape route for the disaster that would eventually overtake them.

In contrast to his intense training, the final days before the launch were a restful time for Ilan and his crewmates. A week before takeoff, they went into isolation and only came in contact with people who had been medically cleared. They were allowed to see their spouses.

On January 13, 2003, Ilan and his six crewmates flew to Kennedy Space Center. "I'm happy to be here, finally," Ilan said after his arrival. "It was a pleasure to go the long way-two and a half years-because of the great team, great crew, great trainers, great flight directors, great engineers. The route to the target is more important than the target. We're going to go for the target, but we enjoy the route as well."

There were many news reports of tight security surrounding Kennedy Space Center because of the heightened fears of terrorism ascribed to the presence of an Israeli astronaut. NASA attempted to play them down. Shuttle Test Director Jeff Spaulding said he had not noticed any unusual security precautions. "The average person coming to work each day probably won't even notice most of the stuff."

Nonetheless, as a post-September11 security measure, NASA did not announce the actual launch window until the day before liftoff. In addition, security around Ilan was tight to prevent terror attacks. Before he went into medical quarantine, he was protected by two police officers at dinner in restaurants. "It's not something he's used to," said Aby Har-Even. "We were quite surprised at the very strict security."

Ilan said he hoped the mission would provide Israelis with a cheerful distraction from the political conflict in Israel at the time. "I think [Israelis] are very happy to be distracted by my flight and NASA flights, maybe to forget a little bit of their problems and get out there with us," he said. Ilan also used his platform to speak of the need for universal cooperation, a common theme among astronauts, who, from space, see the earth in its entirety.

"There's no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying to space," he said. "It goes the same for any country, Arab country, whatever-we are all the same people, we are all human beings and I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people."

A few days before the liftoff, NASA gave the final clearance for the shuttle despite finding a small crack on a stainless steel ball used in the rocket's fuel lines on another shuttle. The ball was designed to permit propellant lines to vibrate without breaking during launch. NASA put a test ball through stresses equivalent to 140 shuttle flights to assure that the mission would not be harmed even if one of the balls on Columbia were damaged during launch.

About three hundred Israelis flew to Florida to watch the takeoff, most of them guests of Ilan and the Israel Space Agency. Excellent weather was forecast. The crew took a final training flight in NASA high-performance aircraft.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke to Ilan the day before the flight. In a speech to supporters of the Weizmann Institute, Israel's science university, he told them about his conversation with the astronaut. "I was excited, the Minister of Education was excited, and I believe that the pilot was the most excited," Sharon said. "We had a long talk, and I can tell you that Colonel Ramon is a man bursting with national pride. Colonel Ramon's flight and his mission into space are a source of honor to us all, and his success is yet another step in Israel's integration into the space age. We wish him and the entire crew of the Columbia space shuttle success in their mission and a safe return home."

In their conversation, Ilan said it was a great privilege to represent Israel. "I'm going to carry special things and try to express something about the unity of the Israeli people and the Jewish community," he told Sharon. "I have some ideas, but for the time being, I will keep them deep inside of me. It will be a surprise." As he had been telling others with increasing frequency, Ilan described to Sharon the significance of a son of a Holocaust survivor going into space. "I know my flight is very symbolic for the people of Israel, especially the survivors, the Holocaust survivors," Ilan said. "Because I was born in Israel, many people will see this as a dream come true."

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