Jewish astronaut remembers Ilan Ramon

"I remember Ilan saying he looked out at Jerusalem. I'll do the same. It'll be a special moment for me."

ilan ramon 298.88 (photo credit: NASA)
ilan ramon 298.88
(photo credit: NASA)
Dr. Garrett E. Reisman, a 38-year-old Jewish mechanical engineer due to fly in a US space shuttle to the International Space Station in 15 months, has invited Rona Ramon - widow of Israel astronaut Col. Ilan Roman - to give him sentimental objects connected to her husband to take on his mission. Reisman, born in New Jersey and now being trained as a mission specialist in Houston, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that he underwent astronaut training along with Ramon and became friendly with him. Since the explosion of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's ill-fated Columbia shuttle with Ramon and his fellow astronauts aboard, Reisman was assigned to keep in touch with the Ramon family. When Rona invited him to attend Tuesday's ceremony naming Kaplan Medical Center's new emergency medicine department in Ilan's memory, Reisman immediately agreed to come. As members of the Ramon family, including Ilan's father, hospital director-general Yosef Bar-El and department director Dr. Yael Dinai looked on, the astronaut's widow and Reisman unveiled a sculpture of stone, inset with a metal model of the Columbia. "Several Jews have already gone to space with NASA astronauts, so I will not be the first, but I remember Ilan saying he looked out at Jerusalem, and I will do the same. It will be a special moment for me," he said on Wednesday. The $8 million department will serve 500,000 area residents who are ill or are victims of road accidents or terror. "It was fantastic to meet all the professionals and see the state-of-the-art facility," Reisman said. It is the third visit to Israel for Reisman, who has been in astronaut training in Houston since 1998. He spent the first here in 1985 with his family when he was a high school pupil on vacation; the second time was to accompany Rona Ramon to her husband's funeral. "It was so incredibly tragic. Ilan had a great sense of humor and worked very hard to represent not only Israel but every Jew in the world," Reisman said. Given the option of collecting debris from the shuttle that fell to earth, assisting in the technical aspects or giving emotional support to the families, Reisman chose to help with the Ramon family. "I got to know them even better than I knew Ilan. Rona is active and the kids are doing very well; it was difficult for them to decide when to return home, but she made the right decision," he said. Reisman's current visit to Israel was via Moscow, where he underwent training with Russian cosmonauts who will work with him on the space station. "The Russians are very proud of their accomplishments in space, which include everything but landing on the moon. Even today, you see street vendors selling T-shirts with the image of Yuri Gargarin, the Russian cosmonaut who was the first man to go to space. I grew up during the Cold War, so now it's almost unthinkable that I'm a part of a mission of cooperations with Russians, along with Canadians, Europeans and Japanese." He said that as a Jew, he has never felt discriminated against growing up in the US or working for NASA or cooperating with Russian scientists (and speaking their language), but while in Moscow, he did notice some anti-Semitic graffiti and hear some unpleasant remarks from people who did not know he is Jewish. Reisman, who can read Hebrew but has forgotten most of the language he knew when he was bar mitzva, recalled that he has been interested in space since he was a kid assembling model planes and rockets and watching movies about Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights, but he never took it seriously as a future career. At the University of Pennsylvania, he studied economics and mechanical engineering and then learned to fly. After doing his doctorate in mechanical engineering at the Califiornia Institute of Technology and getting a pilot's license, he thought that his experience was not so different from missions specialists. He applied along with 2,000 others and was accepted to a class of 31 that included six foreigners. Although there is no NASA plan yet for another Israeli astronaut and none currently training in Houston, Reisman hopes that at least the Israel Space Agency - which he said has superb technical abilities - will be able to cooperate on the International Space Station project. As for the danger of space flights - demonstrated by the Challenger and Columbia disasters, Reisman says he has "no illusions about absolute safety. We have psychologists to help us cope with living in isolation from our families for six months on the space station, but not with fear about the launch or reentry. But pilots of high-performance aircraft and scuba divers are not strangers to risk. And we are trained so well, that the actual launch feels like a simulation. Even though you‚re scared, you have a strong instinct to do your job."