- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

JERUSALEM Israel's first astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, lifted the spirits of a troubled country when he blasted off last month on the Space Shuttle Columbia. The shuttle's disintegration just before landing yesterday brought back the numbness of sudden loss.
"The state of Israel and its citizens are as one at this difficult time," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said in a statement.
President Bush called Mr. Sharon and said it was a "tragic day for the astronauts' families and a tragic day for science."
Ronit Federman, a friend of Col. Ramon since high school 30 years ago, took comfort from e-mail messages she received from the astronaut during his flight.
"I'm sure he was the most satisfied of people in his last moments," Miss Federman told Israel's Channel 10 television. "He wrote about the divine happiness of looking at Earth. He wrote that he would like to keep floating for the rest of his life. That was the last sentence he wrote to us."
Col. Ramon, 48, was an air force colonel and the son of a Holocaust survivor. His military career included fighting in two wars and bombing an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Those missions were carried out anonymously.
He became a national hero overnight as newspapers featured him on the front page after he was selected in 1997 to be a payload specialist on the Columbia mission.
Israeli television stations carried live broadcasts of the Jan. 16 liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Col. Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, 79, was being interviewed live in Jerusalem on Channel Two shortly before the scheduled landing.
"I last spoke to [Ramon] via a video conference when I was still in Houston," the smiling, silver-haired Mr. Wolferman said. "It was very emotional. Our family saw him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air."
Mr. Wolferman was cut off in the middle of a sentence when a correspondent in Florida reported that the ground controllers had lost contact with the shuttle.
[Mr. Sharon telephoned the astronaut's father to express condolences.
["We never expected this," Mr. Wolferman told the prime minister before flying out with his other son, Gadi, to join his daughter-in-law in the United States, Agence France-Presse reported. "Up until the last minute, we hoped it would all go smoothly. … Now we don't have Ilan anymore."]
Col. Ramon's wife, Rona, and their four children, who lived in Texas for several years while Col. Ramon prepared for the flight, were at Cape Canaveral for the landing.
Col. Ramon spent much of the 16-day flight aiming cameras in an Israel Space Agency study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth's atmosphere affected rainfall and temperature.
His journey with six American crewmates diverted attention from 28 months of grinding, nonstop conflict with the Palestinians.
Col. Ramon was not particularly religious but chose to eat kosher food in orbit.
"I'm secular in my background, but I'm going to respect all kinds of Jews all over the world," he said before his flight. "For Israel and for the Jewish community, it's a very symbolic event."
Col. Ramon, one of Israel's top air force pilots, logged thousands of hours of flight time and was part of the first Israeli squad to pilot American-made F-16 fighter jets in 1980. He fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and in the 1982 war in Lebanon.
He was one of the fighter pilots who destroyed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, a senior Israeli government official said last month on the condition of anonymity.
The attack, in which eight F-16 warplanes obliterated the French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad, was a milestone for Israeli aviation because the planes flew over enemy Arab territory for hours without detection. The pilots flew in a tight formation to send off a radar signal resembling that of a large commercial airliner.
Col. Ramon, whose mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp in World War II, honored those who endured the Holocaust. During the flight, he carried a small pencil drawing titled "Moon Landscape" by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz, and other mementos.

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