‘The Israeli space ambassador’

Rona Ramon creates a meaningful legacy out of her double bereavement and grief.

May 12, 2016 04:42
Rona Ramon

Rona Ramon poses with Ramon Foundation Aviators Club participants and with SpaceX director of crew operations, Dr. Garret Reisman, during space week last year. (photo credit: RAMON FOUNDATION)

Tragedies and crises often reveal the talents and leadership potential of those most affected.

Gradually, or even suddenly, they find themselves doing things that had either never occurred to them before or of which they thought themselves incapable.

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Rona Ramon, one of the beacon lighters at the opening of this year’s Israel Independence Day festivities, is one such person.

“When I was young, all I dreamed about was being a good mother and a wonderful wife,” she tells The Jerusalem Post.

Ramon is the founder of the Ramon Foundation, in memory of her husband, Israel’s pioneer astronaut Ilan Ramon, and her eldest son, Asaf, who were both tragically killed.

Col. Ilan Ramon, a former fighter pilot, together with six other crew members, died in February 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas while re-entering earth. His eldest son, Lt. Asaf Ramon, who wanted to be a fighter pilot like his father, died in September 2009 when his F15 jet crashed south of Mount Hebron.

When confronted with her first tragedy, Rona Ramon knew that she had to carry on for the sake of her four children: Asaf, then 14; Tal, 12; Yiftah, nine; and Noa, five, and impart in them the values that their father held dear.

That feeling was reinforced after Asaf’s death, when she began reading his diary and found an entry that stated how proud he and his siblings were that their parents had educated them to know that each should have a dream and should aspire to make that dream a reality.

It was then that she reached the decision that she had to do something meaningful and substantial to perpetuate the memories of her husband and son.

That year she established the Ramon Foundation, not only in response to a personal need to honor her loved ones, but also in the hope of meeting a national need to educate youngsters in the spirit of Ilan and Asaf. Her aim was to inspire and motivate young Israelis to strive for academic excellence and to encourage them to dream and to pursue those dreams.

To Ramon, this was the most essential way to preserve and continue the legacies of her husband and her son.

Since then, the Ramon Foundation has become an extraordinary engine of change, and today is Israel’s primary vehicle in encouraging and dealing with space education.

It currently operates three educational programs in more than 40 municipalities from Mitzpe Ramon in the South to Acre in the North promoting leadership development and Space and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

One of the programs is the Aviators Club, in which professional instructors from the Ramon Foundation cooperate with Israel Air Force pilots from operational squadrons to develop leadership among young people from Israel’s peripheral communities.

The Ramon Award program, operated in conjunction with the Education and Science ministries, promotes science, technology, space education and leadership. The Ramon Spacelab program enables students to send scientific experiments to the International Space Station.

This program, generally known as RSL, is conducted over a two-year period, and comprises teams who work together on a scientific experiment, in the form of a space-related mission.

Each mission is named after a crew member of the Columbia.

Ramon believes that this program can be expanded to link Israeli schoolchildren with counterparts around the globe in which only the sky – or whatever lies beyond the sky – will be the limit.

The programs require additional funding. Immediately after Independence Day, Ramon, together with Ran Livne, the director-general of the Ramon Foundation, will travel to the United States to find partners in addition to the Foundation’s existing 35 partners to enable the expansion of Ramon Foundation activities.

Between the deaths of her husband and her son, Ramon, a professional holistic health therapist, practiced self-therapy by painting, sculpting and writing – none of which she had done before. Her paintings decorate the walls of the foundation building, and there is a sculpture affixed to the door.

One of her paintings of two spreadwinged eagles in the sky is on the cover of a book based on the diaries of her husband and son. The book conveys the underpinnings of the Ramon Foundation and is soon to appear in an English translation.

Three of Ramon’s four children have served in the IAF. Noa is currently serving there. Ramon admits that it was extremely difficult for her when her children made this choice, but if she is encouraging other people’s children to follow their dreams, she can hardly act differently with her own.

“Continuously since 2006, at least one of my kids has been in the military,” she says, and there was a period when two were in the military.

While Ramon appreciates the fact that the Visitors Center at Mitzpe Ramon contains a memorial museum for her husband and that the Ilan and Asaf Ramon International Airport under construction in the Timna Valley, north of Eilat, as well as other important projects have been named after her loved ones, she says that buildings and monuments cannot promote their legacy. This can only be done via the educational and leadership programs of the Ramon Foundation.

A VISITOR to the foundation’s headquarters would be surprised by its simplicity.

Located in a suburb east of Tel Aviv, it has a small sign outside and nothing else to indicate its purpose.

Inside it is furnished simply, more like a home than an office. Ramon wants people to feel comfortable there. It used to be Ramon’s studio where she painted and sculpted. She is in the process of writing her autobiography on dealing with grief in the hope that it will help others who have been bereaved.

In addition to the programs run in schools, Ramon is the driving force behind the annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference hosted by the Israel Space Agency together with the Israel Air Force.

These conferences are always attended by NASA representatives because NASA, like the IAF, is a family, and she and her children receive enormous support from both NASA and the IAF, both on a personal level and with the Ramon Foundation programs.

She cites as an example Garrett Reisman, an American engineer and former NASA astronaut who now works for Spacex, who taught Asaf how to fly.

Reisman comes to Israel every year to participate in the Space Conference.

Perhaps because the interantional space family is so close and is not bound by politics, even the Saudi Arabian astronaut calls her “my sister.”

Ramon is invited to NASA conventions every year.

“We became members of the space family,” she says, adding that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden calls her the Israeli space ambassador, which she regards as a great privilege.

“It’s much easier to get through the world as Israel’s space ambassador than as the head of a foundation or as Ilan’s widow.”

Nonetheless, it isn’t always easy.

From the moment of the Columbia tragedy, she was unable to be alone with her grief.

“I felt that I was losing my privacy.

I was the representative of Israel for all formal ceremonies related to the Columbia. I was given a role that I didn’t expect.”

Ramon draws her inspiration from the families of the Challenger, who came together in 1986, soon after the disaster in which the space shuttle disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast 73 seconds into its flight. In keeping with the crew’s mission they established the Challenger Centers for space science education on which the programs of the Ramon Foundation are based.

Children in the programs come from all sectors of Israeli society, including haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Arab and Druse.

“Space has no borders. It is now reachable for anyone who wants to explore it,” says Ramon.

What gives Ramon the greatest pleasure is how the foundation’s work impacts not only on the lives of the children who enter these programs, but also on their families. Every effort is made to involve parents and siblings, and many parents have told her that children who were violent or restless have become focused, have learned to count before they explode and have found ways of making friends with others in the group.

More than that, the programs teach community responsibility, and everyone who is part of these programs helps out in their communities with community needs.

As to the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl, she is sure that had the expectations of NASA and the Columbia crew been realized, Ilan Ramon would have long ago been a beacon lighter.

“If reality had been different, it would have been Ilan, not me, who creates all these miracles.”

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