At a high school with a science experiment on the doomed space shuttle Columbia, tearful students covered desks with flowers and candles. In a Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared astronaut Ilan Ramon a national hero. And across the country, flags flew at half-staff as the nation mourned its latest loss.

As Israelis spoke of the Columbia disaster, the recurring theme was a country beset by wrenching tragedies.

After 28 months of daily violence with the Palestinians, a depressed economy and the threat of being drawn into a war with Iraq, Israelis had been celebrating Ramon's journey as a testament to their achievements, blissfully free of tension and controversy.

Ramon, the 48-year-old son of a Holocaust survivor, was portrayed as a symbol of hope and rebirth for Jews, and he emphasized the theme repeatedly during his mission, including saying a Jewish prayer while flying over Jerusalem.

The shuttle broke apart Saturday, just minutes before it was to land, killing Ramon and his six American crewmates.

"We got another slap in the face, as a nation, in addition to the slap we get every day," said Gabi Moor, 39, a barber from northern Israel. His shop is next to a cafe damaged last year in one of nearly 90 Palestinian suicide bombings. "It's like there is a jinx on us."

"Dreams in Tatters" read the headline in the Maariv daily, above a full-page picture of the explosion and an inset showing a smiling, waving Ramon in his orange space suit. "Crying for Ilan," declared the Yediot Ahronot daily above a similar spread.

Ramon's loss was particularly stinging at the Ort technical high school in Kiryat Motzkin, a suburb of the northern port city of Haifa.

Six students had spent four years designing an experiment that Ramon took aboard -- a study of how near-zero gravity affects the growth of crystals.

Students covered desks with black table cloths and photo collages showing Ramon and the students' work on the project. During breaks, many of the school's 1,500 students crowded around the exhibits.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sharon told ministers that Ramon's death was not in vain and more Israelis would fly in space.

Ramon was a "bold fighter pilot and an outstanding commander," Sharon said. "A man who did not deserve to be taken from us, along with our hopes, dreams, history and future."

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, sat next to Sharon at the Cabinet session, saying that "Americans and Israelis are brothers indeed, on Earth and in space."

From his battered compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Israeli forces have kept him pinned for more than a year, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sent a letter of condolences to Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

Ramon was an air force colonel whose military career included fighting in two wars and the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. He was twice forced to bail out of planes. Despite such narrow escapes, Ramon loved flying and described the shuttle as being safer that the highways in Israel.

In an interview conducted in 1981 and broadcast for the first time Sunday on Channel 10 TV, Ramon recounted his experiences in bombing the reactor.

Many of his remarks in the interview, showing him as a youthful 27-year-old dressed in a pilot's jump suit, could have applied to his Columbia mission. "In the field there are so many different things that can go wrong, that you have no way of knowing what will happen," he said then.

Ramon's 79-year-old father, Eliezer Wolferman, said a thorough investigation of the disaster would help ease his pain.

"I would like at least to know what happened, at least that," he told Israel Army Radio on Sunday. "He [Ilan] won't have a grave ... I don't have Ilan, and I still can't grasp that."

Wolferman said an e-mail from his son was waiting for him at his home in Omer in the southern Negev Desert, but he did not reveal the content.

Ramon's wife, Rona, and their four children, ages 5 to 14, have been living in Texas for the past several years as he trained for the flight. They were at Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the Jan. 16 liftoff and were present for the expected landing.

Rona Ramon told Israel TV on Sunday, "We take comfort that Ilan left [us] at his peak moment in his favorite place, with people he loved."

Speaking to Israeli reporters in Houston late Sunday, Rona Ramon said her husband was such an optimistic person "he didn't even write a will. He thought it was unnecessary."

She said that at the liftoff, while everyone was celebrating, the Ramons' 5-year-old daughter said, "I lost my daddy."

"Apparently she knew," Rona Ramon said, sobbing.

Ilan Ramon was selected in 1997 as a payload specialist, and spent much of the flight pointing cameras in an Israel Space Agency study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth's atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.