Israeli Astronaut Brought Joy to Nation

Israel's first astronaut, 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 Saturday 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.

Ronit Federman, a friend of Ramon's since high school 30 years ago, took comfort fke to keep floating for the rest of his life. That was the last sentence he wrote to us."

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.

But those missions were carried out anonymously. He became a national hero overnight as newspapers featured him on the front page. Israel television stations carried live broadcasts of the Jan. 16 liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Ramon's 79-year-old father, Eliezer Wolferman, 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 Wolferman said. "It was very emotional. Our family saw him, and the children asked their dad to do somersaults in the air."

Wolferman went on to say, "We write via e-mail ..."

At that moment, the interviewer cut him off as the station broke away to its correspondent in Florida, who explained that the ground controllers had lost contact with the shuttle. When the broadcast returned to the Jerusalem studio, Wolferman had left.

A couple of hours later, he spoke again to the media.

"I think of everything from the day he was born until now," he said. "I have no son, it is very sad and I don't know what else to say."

Ramon's wife, Rona, and their four children, who have lived in Texas for several years while Ramon prepared for the flight, were at Cape Canaveral for the landing. NASA took the astronauts' families to a secluded place.

Ramon was selected in 1997 to be a payload specialist. He spent much of Columbia's 16-day flight aiming cameras in an Israel Space Agency study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth's atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.

For a few days, Ramon's journey with six American crewmates diverted attention from the grinding conflict with the Palestinians, which has reached 28 months of nonstop fighting.

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," Ramon said before his flight. "For Israel and for the Jewish community, it's a very symbolic event."

President Bush called Sharon and said it was a "tragic day for the astronauts' families and a tragic day for science."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority also offered "condolences to the six American families and to the Israeli family who lost their loved ones," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.

Israel's enthusiasm for the shuttle flight stemmed partly from the fact that Ramon was one of the country's top air force pilots, considered among the nation's military elite.

Ramon 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.

Ramon 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 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.

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.

Ramon's father gave him family photos to take into space and a brother had a letter stowed away in the shuttle that Ramon read in orbit.