January 16, 2003
The space shuttle Columbia takes off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:39 am. Among the seven member crew was Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot and the country’s first astronaut. In 1996, Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space made an agreement with NASA to conduct an experiment involving the study of Middle East dust storms. As part of the agreement, Ramon was selected as Israel’s first astronaut in 1997.
During the January 16th launch, a large piece of foam broke off from the shuttle’s external tank and crashed into one of the wings, causing damage to the wing . The damage caused by the foam would lead to the shuttle disintegrating upon re-entry on February 1st after its 16 day mission, its 28th, killing all seven crew members.
Ramon, whose mother and grandmother were survivors of Auschwitz, had been a Colonel in the Israeli Air Force and was one of the pilots on the team that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. Despite not being an observant Jew, he had insisted on marking Shabbat and eating Kosher food while in space. Israel’s President Moshe Katsav provided him with a microfiche version of the Torah.
Ramon told the Jerusalem Post, “My mother is a Holocaust survivor who was in Auschwitz, and 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 my parents and their generation that whatever we’ve been fighting for in the last century is coming true. I feel I’m representing the whole Jewish people.” (Gestetner, Shlomo, “Ilan Ramon’s Subtle Call to Jewish Earthlings,” Jerusalem Post, January 16, 2003)