Remembering the Ramons: Space Week brings NASA astronauts to Israel

This year’s theme asked the decades-old question, “Why explore space?”

(From left) NASA astronauts Eric Boe, Donald Thomas and Mark Vande Hei participate in Israeli Space Week (photo credit: SHAULI LENDNER)
(From left) NASA astronauts Eric Boe, Donald Thomas and Mark Vande Hei participate in Israeli Space Week
(photo credit: SHAULI LENDNER)

As Space Week launched in Israel in January, before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, students, scientists and space aficionados alike came together to applaud the many great accomplishments of space exploration, and to discuss the exciting new developments ahead – both in the Jewish state and around the globe.
Israeli Space Week never goes unnoticed. It’s hard to escape the numerous advertisements or the list of events, including lectures, interactive exhibits and stargazing spots open to the public. From displays allowing users to simulate operating a rover to inflatable planetariums there was no end to inspiring people to look to the cosmos – both young and old alike. One of the main highlights this year was the impressive array of speakers who ventured to Israel to help spread the word about space.
This year’s theme asked the decades-old question, “Why explore space?” The string of events is held every year in memory of the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished tragically in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster of 2003. It also commemorates his wife, Rona, who established the Ramon Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers scholarships and after school programs encouraging children to pursue STEM and space-related careers.
The foundation, along with the Science and Technology Ministry and the Israeli Space Agency, brought several world-renowned astronauts to the Jewish state, including NASA astronaut and former administrator Charles Bolden, along with NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Eric Boe, Donald Thomas, and Garrett Reisman, and JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata.
The Jerusalem Report spoke with Bolden and Vande Hei about their expeditions in space, their ties to Israel, and what lies in the future for Israeli space exploration.
Prior to becoming an astronaut, Vande Hei served at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado as part of the Space Command battalion. Later, as part of his astronaut training, he was certified as an aquanaut, diving  up to 100 ft (30 m) deep into the ocean. During his brief but busy visit to the Holy Land, he spoke to students in Tel Aviv and the remote Druze village of Yarka.
Vande Hei noted that his time in the military helped influenced his career at NASA. “The military is all about teamwork,” he said, “because the whole army is a team within a team. Certainly, an essential thing about being an astronaut separated from all of humanity is understanding how to work well as a member of a team.” During his time aboard the International Space Station, he participated in spacewalks, where he conducted routine mechanical work that involved fixing the Canadian robotic arm that is used to grab on to visiting US cargo spacecraft.
Being aboard the station is – contrary to popular belief – actually quite busy, he noted. It involves not only upkeep of the station and routine experiments, but collaborating with external companies who have sent their research to be carried out hundreds of miles above the Earth’s atmosphere.
“It’s very expensive to get a human being into space, so you can imagine there’s lots of work you need to accomplish [while there]. Many times, you’re interacting with an experiment that someone’s whole career has been dedicated to getting it into space, so there’s a lot of pressure to not mess it up,” he said. However, he added,  “the view’s incredible. Once you get used to how to maneuver in the environment, it’s incredibly fun because of the freedom of motion that you have. I got to live and work with some wonderful people in space as well.”
As for Israeli space exploration, he praised the ability and ambition of multiple countries who are eager to get to space.
“The fact that we have lots of countries interested in space exploration is extremely important. To be able to do it, you’re going to have to get as many people involved as possible, not only because of the financial resources, but because of the innovation we get from different kinds of people,” he added.
As for his message to those who have high hopes to become astronauts someday, he said, “first figure out what it is that you love to do. When you love to do something, you tend to be very successful at it. Although the chances of being an astronaut are very small, if you’re already doing something you love to do, it won’t really matter, because the path to get there has been so satisfying.”
Bolden, a former NASA head administrator and astronaut has been annually attending Israeli Space Week, and personally knew Rona Ramon.
In honor of US Black History Month, Bolden shared a bit about what it was like growing up as an African-American in the segregated South. “It did have an influence on me,” he said. “Living apart from people of a different race, having Blacks and Whites separated in communities and in schools and churches, was just normal. We were led to believe that was the way people should live their lives.”
With both his parents working as schoolteachers, he was thrust into a world where academics was extremely important. “My mom constantly told my brother and I that if we wanted to succeed, we really needed to study as hard as we could. Don’t give up until you attain your goal, she would say.”
Due to segregation, Bolden wasn't able to get an appointment to the Naval Academy from the senators of his home state of South Carolina. Eventually, he did so by petitioning the President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson for help.  This led to an appointment to the Academy from  a congressman from Illinois. "You find ways around the system," he said. "It's important to be persistent, because there's always a way you can get something done."
Bolden served in the Marines and as a naval pilot, and later a test pilot – a career choice that put him right on track to becoming an astronaut. “The very first time I got in an airplane and lifted off; I fell in love with it. I could not believe how exciting it was.”
While serving as a test pilot, he met Dr. Ronald McNair, who later died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. “He and I had both grown up in the segregated South, he was also African-American and he fought the same kinds of battles that I had to move forward in life.” McNair pushed him to apply to the space program. Bolden was later accepted.
During his long illustrious career, he participated in many missions, including launching the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and joining the first-ever joint Russian-American mission, which led to future expeditions of cosmonauts and astronauts flying together in space. “That flight was the first of its kind. It was the last test before we decided that we could get together and build an International Space Station,” he said. “It’s diplomacy,” he added.
Columbia was the first spacecraft that he flew on, and he described it as “one of the reasons why I had a special connection with Ilan, even though I didn’t know him personally.” He came to know Ramon’s family after the accident. “Ilan once said that looking at Earth from space, most people try to find their country, but after being out there for several days, you realize that you are a citizen of the world. The global picture is important.”
Being aboard the shuttle, he described "the thin, fragile atmosphere that provides and sus­tains life for us. You became painfully aware of the bad things we're doing, in terms of pollu­tion, both of the ocean and the atmosphere, and there a lot of things that we can and should do better to help improve conditions on the plan­et."
Currently, he heads the Bolden Group, that works with companies that pursue commercial space exploration. Nanoracks has invented plenty of devices that are now on the space station, and helps people build CUBESATS or small nanosatellites. Axiom Space recently won a contract from NASA to provide the first commercial space station. It has an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to train nongovernment astronauts, including perhaps Israeli ones, he explained. “I think there will definitely be another Israeli astronaut in the future, and sooner rather than later.”
As for Israeli space exploration, Bolden was fascinated with the Beresheet mission, which was helped greatly by the agreement signed between NASA and the Science and Technology Ministry in 2015, while he was administrator. “I was really impressed with the concept of it from the very beginning,” he said and is excited for a future Beresheet 2 attempt.
On February 24, Katherine Johnson, one of the first African-American women on board at NASA, passed away. Johnson’s meticulous calculations helped plot the first spaceflight, and she was portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures. When asked how things differ at NASA for women back then in comparison to now, Bolden explained that space shuttle flights only began in 1978.
“Up until then, it had been only men. There was always some excuse not to accept and train women. This opened the door. I think that NASA is doing an awful lot to make sure that women take their rightful place in both leadership positions and as regular members of the team,” he said. Current Chief Flight Director Holly Ridings is one example. While he served as administrator, Bolden’s deputies were also women, Lori Garver and Dr. Dava Newman.
Bolden is a practicing Christian. As a scientist, he often is asked whether he sees a contradiction between his faith and  the work he does. "I find no contradiction whatsoever between science and religion," he said. "In fact, I find that the two complement each other. When I flew my first space shuttle mission, I was incredibly well-prepared technically, but incredibly unprepared emotionally. It was seeing the planet from that vantage point, in all its beauty and fragility that actually strengthened my faith. The more I looked, the more I realized that the omnipotent God about whom I learned in my church growing up had created all this - from our planet  up into the heavens and throughout the universe ."
As for the future, he noted that "sometimes in failure we learn important things. Ilan's mission, though ending tragically, left us with the great challenge to pick up from where he and his crew left off and keep on moving."