Three National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts and relatives of those who perished in the ill-fated Columbia mission that included Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, will arrive here on Sunday to mark the third anniversary of the tragedy.
The names of Ramon and the six other astronauts who perished on February 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its reentry into the atmosphere will be officially commemorated at a ceremony at Beit Hanassi on Sunday.
The ceremony will be attended by Ramon's widow Rona, members of the families of the other astronauts, the three-member NASA delegation who are on the space shuttle Discovery team, diplomats and members of Israel's space exploration program.
Retired US Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, who was commander of the recent STS-114 Discovery shuttle, and mission specialists Stephen Robinson and Andrew Thomas will arrive to attend ceremonies and the Israel Space and Science Conference to be held in Ramon's memory on Tuesday at Air Force House in Herzliya.
This event will be opened by Rona Ramon and sponsored by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, the Israel Space Agency, the Science and Technology Ministry and the Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Research. The STS-114 mission was the first launched by NASA after the Columbia exploded during its return to Earth.
The NASA astronauts will meet during their week here with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and will participate in a number of memorial events, including one at Ramon's grave. They will also visit high schools in Jerusalem, Mitzpe Ramon, Nahalal and Tel Aviv and tour Israeli sites of interest to them.
The Israeli government has agreed on a number of Columbia-related projects, including the naming of seven hills in the Ramon Crater near Mitzpe Ramon in memory of Ilan Ramon and the six US astronauts who perished with him on the mission, Rick Husband, William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and David Brown. The three visiting astronauts will tour that site.
In August 2003, about six months after the Columbia disaster, a mountain in Colorado was named for the seven astronauts. Rona Ramon said that the naming of seven hills in the Negev for the shuttle team "closes a circle that represents friendship, hope and discover, and bridges the world between the US and Israel and up to the heights of space that Ilan Ramon and the Columbia team so loved."
The government has also established a scholarship fund in the name of the fallen Israeli astronaut. The Ramon family will present them to outstanding students in various disciplines who have also shown community involvement. "I think educational scholarships are a suitable way to memorialize Ilan," Rona Ramon said, "so that messages of tolerance, love of family, the land and humanity can materialize."
Collins, the first woman to command a US space mission, participated in four flights to space with a total of 872 hours away from earth. Thomas, who joined NASA in 1992, was a payload commander on the Endeavor and was a team member on Russia's Mir space station for 130 days. Robinson, who like Thomas has a doctorate, flew on the STS-85 shuttle in 1997 as a payload commander and was on the STS-114 Discovery mission in the summer of 2005.