Ilan Ramon’s life and death: The legacy of a luminary

“He was cool-headed, modest, sort of a humble hero, not like most macho, Top Gun flyers."

The three Ramon children, Tal, Noa and Yiftach, join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz and Israel Airports Authority CEO Yaakov Ganot in cutting a red ribbon at the inauguration of the Ramon Airport on January 21, 2019 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN)
The three Ramon children, Tal, Noa and Yiftach, join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz and Israel Airports Authority CEO Yaakov Ganot in cutting a red ribbon at the inauguration of the Ramon Airport on January 21, 2019
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN)
Dawn broke sunny and hot in Beersheba on July 20, 1969. The Israeli newspaper, Davar, reported the story captivating the world: “Armstrong and Aldrin Will Land on the Surface of the Moon tonight at 22:16.” The story dug deeply into the flight’s details. It said that the astronauts’ landing vehicle, officially called the Lunar Excursion Module, but which Davar dubbed “the Spider” for its spindly legs and arachnoid appearance, would land four minutes and 39 seconds earlier than planned.
Ma’ariv marked the lunar landing on its front page but led with a report that IDF forces had attacked an Egyptian Army post on an island south of Suez. The firefight killed dozens of enemy soldiers and destroyed anti-tank guns. Six IDF soldiers died and nine were wounded in the effort. Such was the split attention of Israelis then and now: the world outside and the turmoil within.
Fifteen-year-old Ilan Wolferman was on summer break between ninth and tenth grade at Himmelfarb Comprehensive Secondary School that day. Well into the early hours of July 21, long after a crescent moon had set over Beersheba’s star-studded desert skies, he awoke to watch Apollo 11 Mission Commander Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on Mare Tranquillitatis at 4:56 a.m. Israel time. He sat opposite a TV set as Armstrong took his two-minute descent down the lander’s ladder to the lunar surface. Young Wolferman – who later in life changed his last name to Ramon – was transfixed by the grainy black and white image transmitted by a camera that itself was trained on a TV monitor at NASA headquarters in Houston.
“I was one of the millions of people who watched that historical moment in fear and excitement and heard Armstrong’s famous sentence as he laid foot on the moon: ‘It’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,’” Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon wrote in a letter he sent to the Israel Air Force magazine, Bitaon Hel Ha’avir, shortly after meeting Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at NASA in 1999. “The last thing I’d dare to imagine that day [in 1969] was that 30 years later I’d be lucky enough to meet these history-making astronauts face to face in the space center in Houston.”
Armstrong, who was as modest as Ramon was, but also famously taciturn and non-expressive, didn’t mention the Apollo mission or his flight to the moon during his talk.
“Only when he was asked about his feelings during the mission, did he address the issue,” Ramon wrote. “His answer was surprising. ‘More than all, I remember the picture of blue and delicate Earth, as it is seen from far away.’ Earth, and not the Moon….”
Israel Hanukoglu, editor of the Israel Science and Technology Directory, who maintains a memorial website for Ilan Ramon, drew a comparison between Armstrong and Ramon.
“Explorers have always been considered as heroes to be remembered. In the modern space age, Neil Armstrong became an unforgettable hero as the first man to step on a new land closest to Earth,” he told me. “Similarly, for the nation of Israel, Ilan Ramon left his imprint on modern history as the first Israeli pioneer to reach the new frontier for mankind that is Space, as an astronaut in a spaceship.”
By the time of his encounter with Armstrong, Ramon and his family had been in Houston for more than a year, where he was training for the STS-107 Columbia mission along with six other astronauts.
Ramon had been planning retirement from the Israel Air Force in 1997. He was near the end of a distinguished 25-year career, which had begun with flight training after graduation from high school. He flew missions in the Yom Kippur War. He only graduated from IAF Flight School as a fighter pilot in 1974.
Seven years later, Ramon was one of eight Israeli F-16 pilots whose bombs obliterated the French-built Osiraq nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Ramon, the youngest of the squadron’s flyers, planned the jets’ tightly bunched formation, which he designed to send a radar signal like that of a large commercial airliner. He flew at the tail of the configuration, the most vulnerable location. Before the unprecedented mission, Ramon said that he, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, was willing to risk his life and die, if necessary, to defend Israel.
One of the operation’s pilots, Amos Yadlin, who later headed the Mossad, said years afterward that Ramon was the perfect choice for the job.
“He was cool-headed, modest, sort of a humble hero, not like most macho, Top Gun flyers,” Yadlin said.
The next year Ramon flew missions over Lebanon as part of Operation Peace for Galilee. He then went to Tel Aviv University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering. With his degree in hand, Ramon’s career in the Air Force soared. He became Deputy Commander of an F-4 Phantom Squadron and later F-16 Squadron commander. By 1992, he had recorded 1,000 F-16 flight hours, as well as 3,000 flight hours on the A-4, Mirage III-C, and F-4. Flying, especially fighters, was Ramon’s great love, but he was ending his career as head of the air force’s weapon development and acquisition department.
One evening in 1997, Ramon was packing up his briefcase before returning home. The telephone rang. Without preamble, a colleague asked if he’d like to become an astronaut.
“Come on, I don’t have time for jokes now,” Ramon said. But the call wasn’t a joke. By all accounts, he was the Air Force’s consensus choice. With typical modesty, Ramon said that he never prepared for being an astronaut. He simply had the two qualifications being sought: he was a pilot and he had an engineering degree.
“I never thought I would have been an astronaut. When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space,” he said.
Once at NASA, Ramon threw himself into astronauts’ training. He was originally named a Payload Specialist, meaning he was to be a passenger responsible for a specific experiment. His enthusiasm and skills raised his profile to that of Mission Specialist, essentially a regular member of the crew trained for multiple tasks, except for flying, landing, or controlling the spacecraft.
After a flurry of attention in Israel, Ramon receded into the background as the country went through the throes of the second intifada. His primary experiment – analyzing desert dust – was derided in local media.
But others saw him – and he consciously played the role of – Ambassador of Israel and Judaism to the world. Ramon brought Jewish and Israeli objects into space, including a miniature Torah scroll that had been used in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Few of those objects survived Columbia’s fiery break-up over Texas’ skies. Two items recovered were the camera he used to photograph the dust particles and a cardboard-covered notebook that had been his diary. Among the 18 pages of handwritten Hebrew deciphered after the notebook’s reconstruction was the wording of the Shabbat Kiddush, which he had planned to recite in space.
Israeli cultural and political commentator Dr. Tomer Persico told me that the Torah scroll, and other objects Ramon brought, “carried a sort of victory over the Nazis. This is of course straight to the heart of Jewish-Israeli identity.”
Along with Ramon’s conscious efforts at carrying a positive message of Jewishness and Israel into space, he was also a man experiencing the majesty of spaceflight.
“Today is maybe the first day that I really feel like I live in space,” Ramon wrote in the diary on day six of the 16-day trip. “I turned out to be a man who lives and works in space, just like in the movies. We wake up in the morning… [go] to the ‘family room’ – brushing my teeth, my face and to work. A little bit of coffee…a little cleaning and storing. A few days later another experiment, a press conference with the prime minister, and the days of work continue.”
Ilan Ramon’s endearing matter-of-factness and sense of wonder may have perished with him, but it’s not a cliché to say that his legacy lives on. The Ramon Foundation that his widow Rona Ramon set up to support science education is only one of many ongoing projects carrying Ilan Ramon’s name into the future.
• January saw the 14th annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference. The 2019 theme was “Toward Space Commercialization.”
• The Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport near Eilat began operations on January 21, after more than five years of construction.
• The Ilan Ramon Center of the Negev provides access to laboratories, advanced astronomical equipment, and high-level instruction to students.
• The Ilan Ramon Jewish Day School in California was damaged in last year’s raging wildfires but pledged to rebuild.
• The Ilan Ramon Museum and Memorial at the Ramon Crater reception center opened in 2013. The Museum claims that Ilan changed his name from Wolferman to Ramon because of his love for that part of the Negev.
One of Israel’s most intriguing space-related projects is a Mars-environment simulator in the Mitzpe Ramon crater of southern Israel. D-Mars project participants, who work in pressure suits inside and outdoors, are planning four excursions to the isolated habitat this year, beginning in February. D-Mars scientists call themselves “Ramonauts,” but while the name is more connected to the Crater than to Ilan Ramon, spokeswoman and co-founder Hadas Nevenzal told me the project has a deep connection to the Ramon family.
She and about half of the D-Mars team are graduates of International Space University in France, and they all received scholarships from the Ramon Foundation to attend the program.
“Ilan Ramon’s story touched almost everyone in Israel,” Nevenzal said. “Anyone with any interest in space was inspired by him. On a personal level a lot of us at D-Mars were influenced by him. D-Mars wouldn’t be here if so many of us hadn’t gone to Space U, and we couldn’t have gone without a scholarship.”
For the most part, such projects and programs have been of interest primarily to their participants, students, and Israeli space buffs. However, that may change this year. So far, 2019 is already a year of space firsts. China safely landed its un-crewed Chang’e-4 probe on the dark side of the moon, the first-ever soft landing there. America’s New Horizons spacecraft passed close by tiny exoplanet Ultima Thule, a snowman-shaped agglomeration of rock and ice 6.4 billion kilometers from Earth.
Israel’s most exciting space adventure, and the one that may bring space back to the forefront of the Israeli consciousness, is SpaceIL’s effort to land a module on the moon and to collect scientific data from it.
So far, only three countries have landed softly on the moon: the US, the former Soviet Union, and most recently, China. SpaceIL was founded to take advantage of a Google challenge to land an object on the moon, but the search engine company canceled the competition and its $20 million prize when its deadline passed without success.
SpaceIL found additional funding, however, and continued to develop its project. It is now within days or weeks of sending its Beresheet craft into space along with other items as part of a secondary payload on the next SpaceX launch. The dishwasher-sized Beresheet module would make our tiny country the fourth or fifth nation – depending on whether India gets in ahead of Israel – to safely land an object on the moon.
Among other objects, the SpaceIL craft will include a time capsule filled with details about the craft, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Bible, a recording of “Hatikvah,” paintings, and a children’s book inspired by SpaceIL’s mission to the moon.
Dr. Yael Schuster, author of The Little Spacecraft, told me that she believes her book is “essentially continuing the mission that Rona Ramon was dedicated to – inspiring kids to love science.”
SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby said that the group can’t wait for the launch. He also credited Rona Ramon with being an inspiration.
“Her memory and spirit will guide us in educating the next generation and encouraging young people to study science and technology,” Anteby said. “In her name, we will reach the moon.”
One of the experiments that Ilan Ramon conducted on Columbia was to photograph the little understood phenomena of “sprites.” These brief red and blue flashes are only found in the upper atmosphere during major thunderstorms. Sprites are just one of several colorful, above-the-clouds singularities that have caused wonderment for centuries. They stimulated scientific interest after pilots and astronauts began reporting and photographing them. Ramon spoke with enthusiasm about capturing them in an interview he did with NASA before the flight.
“Our camera is actually the best way to monitor and try to catch these sprites, these ghostie lightnings, going up to space,” he said. “Part of the experiment [is] trying to understand what causes these kinds of lightnings.”
Ramon wrote in his space diary that he had “a beautiful view of a mighty lightning storm over India, Tibet, Nepal and Japan.” During that storm, he took photos that captured haunting images of these short-lived wonders.
Israeli commentator Yakir Englander recently speculated that Rona Ramon sought cremation instead of burial in a sort of solidarity with the fiery deaths of her husband and first-born son. If fire defines the Ramons’ deaths, I would like to think that it can also evoke their connection to space and the heavens. Like the red and blue sprites that he photographed, Ilan Ramon’s brightness dazzled us for a moment and then disappeared, leaving only their afterimage in our eyes and hearts.
Ramon himself appreciated the paradox of their brevity and timelessness.
“These sprites statistically happen every second around the globe,” he said. “Once a second, there is a sprite. Of course, you have to be in the right time and the right place to catch it.”
Alan D. Abbey, Media Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote the 2003 book, ‘Journey of Hope: The Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s First Astronaut’ (Gefen). Ilan Ramon’s letter was translated from Hebrew to English by Alex Abbey