- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli air force, is scheduled to become the first Israeli astronaut. Col. Ramon will fly on the STS-107 shuttle mission in January.
In theory, the only people who get to fly in space are highly trained career astronauts. In practice, money and politics are just as important.
Anybody with enough money can purchase a weeklong ride to the International Space Station from Russia. And countries on good terms with the United States have been offered seats on space shuttle missions.
In the past, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has flown guest astronauts from Canada, France, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine, among other nations. Some were legitimate scientists and engineers flying with specific experiments.
Some were token passengers flying because their countries purchased satellite launches from NASA. And many flew solely for political reasons. If the State Department wants to encourage friendly relationships with another country, inviting that country to fly a passenger on the shuttle goes a long way.
After the Challenger accident, the Rogers Commission recommended that only trained astronauts fly and said there was no place for nonprofessionals. If a position can be filled by a NASA career astronaut it is, with outside "payload specialists" flying only if they have specific skills not available in the astronaut corps.
The primary exceptions have been for foreigners. For example, Leonid Kadenyuk, former Soviet cosmonaut from Ukraine, flew on the shuttle in 1997. He barely spoke English, and none of the rest of the crew spoke Russian or Ukrainian. As a token science mission, Mr. Kadenyuk tended several plant-growth experiments.
In 1995 the Clinton administration offered Israel the opportunity to fly an experiment and astronaut on the shuttle. Col. Ramon has excellent English skills and much more training than many who have flown on the shuttle.
Col. Ramon explained, "I was selected out of the air force because the Israeli space agency believed that the best person to be the first would be exactly as the seven first [Mercury] astronauts out of the United States were" military pilots.
Col. Ramon has a long record as an Israeli air force pilot, which he can't discuss. Rumors place him in one of the most daring military operations in the Middle East. On June 7, 1981, several F-16s were flown by Israeli pilots into Iraq. The F-16s bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor that Iraq was building supposedly as a civilian power plant.
The United States sold the F-16s to Israel with the understanding that they would be used only for defensive purposes and formally condemned the action, along with most countries. But the United States and other countries were grateful that Iraq didn't get an operational nuclear reactor.
Col. Ramon was one of the first Israeli pilots trained to fly the F-16 and, according to his biography, in 1981 he was a deputy squadron commander, which would have made him a strong candidate for the Osirak raid.
But he won't talk about whether he was involved. He said: "I'm 30 years in the air force and done a lot of operations. I can't refer to any of them. Use your imagination and you can put me there or put me out of there."
Unlike most payload specialists, Col. Ramon will be participating with more experiments because of the mission's heavy workload. Payload commander Mike Anderson explained: "When we were assigned to the flight, I started looking at the payloads and it became obvious Ilan would have to be fully integrated with the crew. Usually a payload specialist specializes in one payload, but we couldn't have that luxury on this flight. So Ilan is fully trained in all of the payloads. He's going to everything that the other astronauts on flight are doing."
The scientific reason for Col. Ramon's mission is Meidex, the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment. A special camera in the shuttle's cargo bay will be used to sweep across the Mediterranean Sea and a portion of the Atlantic Ocean next to Africa to look for large dust clouds.
Former NASA administrator Daniel Goldin said, "NASA has been working for the past decade with the Israelis about studying aerosols, desert dust interacting with the clouds over the Middle East. We got a counterintuitive result. It appears that instead of increasing [rain] because of the additional seeding, it depresses it."
The STS-107 mission had been planned for July but was delayed by technical problems with the shuttle fleet. NASA bumped STS-107 behind two space-station missions that were more time-critical.



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