Half a year after returning from space to resupply the International Space Station, three US National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts landed at the Jerusalem Science and the Arts High School, telling pupils that they should aspire to be stars.
"Everyone has something special," said Rona Ramon, widow of Israel's first astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, who died along with six NASA astronauts in the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle crash on February 1, 2003. "You will go far if you always do your best," said Ramon, who initiated the unusual encounter between the astronauts and high-achieving youths from around the country.
Retired US Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, who was commander of the recent STS-114 Discovery shuttle, and mission specialists Dr. Stephen Robinson and Dr. Andrew Thomas arrived at the high school in royal blue zip-up uniforms. They narrated a breathtaking video film showing their mission from blastoff to landing, including a successful emergency repair on bits of filling between tiles that threatened to cause dangerous heat buildup upon re-entry.
The three arrived in Israel to attend a Herzliya conference on Tuesday that will mark the third anniversary of Ramon's death and to name seven hills in the Ramon Crater near Mitzpe Ramon in memory of the fallen astronauts - Ramon, Rick Husband, William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and David Brown.
Collins, the first woman ever to command a US space mission, who participated in four flights with a total of 872 hours away from earth, said NASA would abandon low-Earth orbit missions and fly new types of spacecraft to "live on the moon." Later it would launch a manned mission to Mars after the present shuttle participates in 18 more missions and is retired in 2010.
Asked by pupils of the high school - Jewish and Arab, secular and religious - whether it was hard to be a female space shuttle commander, the wife and mother said that during work she did not think about being a woman. "Everybody's mind is on ensuring that the mission succeeds," she said. But as a US Air Force test pilot, she was one of 20 women in a sea of 18,000 men, and "everybody knew what and how well we were doing, as if we were in a fishbowl."
"Space is very peaceful; you can hardly see borders on earth," said Robinson, who was a team member on Russia's Mir space station for 130 days. "Thousands of very different people from around the world worked hard to get you into space; it is an effort of the human race. You can see only beauty, and that is the way it should be."
Thomas said he enjoyed weightlessness, which enables astronauts to load thousands of kilograms of equipment by tossing them from one to another as if they were made of cotton wool. On a spacewalk to repair the outer layer of the craft, "I saw earth between my toes 250,000 miles below, and I was holding on with only one hand." Although it wasn't easy sleeping in a drifting sack, weightlessness is easy to get used to, he said, and when you have to walk again, it seems strange.
Later, at Beit Hanassi at the President's Forum on Science and Technology, Collins said it had always been a dream of hers to visit Israel. Thanks to Rona Ramon and the Ministry for Science and Technology, she said, that dream had been realized.
Collins related how when orbiting in space, she had gazed down at the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea and had reflected on the history of Israel and how much she wanted to visit the country.
Some of the other sights she saw from Discovery, she said, had been seen by Ilan Ramon and his crew three years ago.
Speaking of her own crew, she said, "We knew our mission was carrying out their dreams. We put a picture of them on our flight deck."
Referring to the naming of the seven hills in the Ramon crater, Collins said that she misses the Columbia crew very much and thinks of them "literally every day." She expressed the hope that the dedication would bring the Discovery crew closer to the Columbia crew and to the accomplishment of their mission to improve life on earth.
Prof. Mina Teicher, director-general of the Science Ministry, said that for Israelis the memory of Ramon symbolizes scientific excellence, courage, love of human nature and nature itself and the struggle for the highest achievements.
After the Columbia tragedy, she said, Collins had reassured millions of people in America of the future of the space program and had given hope to the world that space can indeed be conquered.
Space research in Israel is strong, said Teicher, specifically citing the new Venus project, a French-Israeli satellite program that is being jointly manufactured and will be jointly used for scientific goals. Venus is designated for launch in 2008.
Teicher was optimistic that the day would not be long in coming when Israel would have another astronaut in space.
Rona Ramon listed some of the existing monuments to the Columbia crew, and noted that they had successfully carried out their mission in space. The crew members were people of different nationalities and religions, she said, but they had learned to respect and love each other and live together as family. "They represented humanity as a whole," said Ramon.
Yuval Peled, head of the planning and development division of the Nature Authority, said the Ramon crater and its seven hills reflect the bond of the spirit of Man with the spirit of the Earth, and symbolize the efforts of Ramon and his crew.
President Moshe Katsav looked forward to the day when technology and science would be used solely to solve regular problems, such as health and poverty, and would no longer have to be used in the fight against terrorism.