A promise fulfilled

Israeli scientists who worked with Columbia's astronauts talk about Ilan Ramon z"l.

ilan ramon 248.88 (photo credit: NASA)
ilan ramon 248.88
(photo credit: NASA)
The following is a 2003 article on Israel's first astronaut Ilan Ramon, father of IAF pilot Assaf Ramon. For two frustrating years, young scientist Yoav Yair stood by as the launch of the space shuttle Columbia was delayed for one reason after another. But Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, always lifted his spirits, recalls Yair. "He said, 'Don't worry Yoav, we will make it. We will fly. We will bring you down excellent results.'" "He lived up to this promise," says Yair. Today, scientists have a better understanding of the atmosphere, including the physics of thunderstorms and climate changes, thanks to data collected for Israeli scientists by the seven astronauts on the Columbia, which broke apart on February 1, killing its crew, including Ramon. By that fatal Saturday morning most of the data had already been sent back to the six-member Israeli scientific team, which included Yair, tracking the flight on the ground in Maryland. Now the scientists, who have returned to Israel, are torn between excitement over the new data and sorrow over the loss of the crew who had become their friends. "We were about to celebrate and instead we mourn," says Yair of the Open University. With 80-plus experiments on board, the shuttle was a science lab in space. Among them were experiments designed by a team of 14 Israeli scientists organized out of Tel Aviv University. For four years, while the astronauts trained for their mission, this team trained for theirs. Although the bulk of the work was done in Israel, they went to the United States many times to coordinate with the crew. While the crew worked in space around the clock, so too did six of these scientists, who kept a 24-hour computer vigil in Maryland. Joachim Joseph, of Tel Aviv University, one of two lead scientists on the project, says that Ramon and the astronauts were like one family. "They spent so much time together and they were all similar people. They were smart and enthusiastic." Ramon, a small man with a twinkle in his eye, "was active and quick and intelligent, caring, so it was impossible not to like him. He was just that kind of guy. When you saw him, you immediately took to him. I particularly liked the way he interacted with his children," says Joseph. Ramon was on a dual mission for Joseph: one for science and one for history. Upon visiting Joseph in his Tel Aviv home, Ramon noticed a miniature Torah scroll in a small wooden box. A Holocaust survivor, Joseph explained that it was a bar mitzva present from an Amsterdam rabbi who shared his barracks in 1944. The rabbi secretly arranged a bar mitzva ceremony for Joseph at 4 a.m. The rabbi then made him promise to tell the story of what went on in the camps should he make it out alive. "Later Ilan called from Houston and asked if he could bring it into space to show it to the world as a symbol of the many good qualities of the Jewish people, such as resilience," Joseph says. It doesn't bother him that the box is now empty, because for him the Torah still exists. "I am not sorry that it didn't come back. Ilan allowed me to fulfill my promise to Rabbi Dasberg. I would never have been able to reach the whole world without Ilan. I think the Torah scroll did its job on earth and in space." While in space, the astronauts shot the first calibrated photograph of an electrical phenomenon, known to scientists for only the past 15 years. With coordinates provided by the Tel Aviv science team, astronaut David Brown captured on film the luminous event, commonly called a sprite or elve, Yair says. Brown couldn't see it, but the camera picked it up on day two of the mission and made it visible to the human eye. A photograph of it was e-mailed back to Brown, who said, during a press conference, that seeing the photograph over e-mail was one of the highlights of the trip. Thanks to the astronauts scientists now know that these sprites occur more often than previously thought, Yair says, and the information collected by the astronauts has thrown much light on the physics of the phenomenon. Scientists will now have a better understanding of the connections between the lower and upper atmosphere. Twice a day the scientists gave the astronauts coordinates to take photos in space. "We worked 24 hours a day in shifts. We had daily exchanges with the crew," Yair says. He recalls how Ramon remembered his birthday, January 20, and congratulated him from space. "It was touching that he remembered, even though he was so busy doing all those experiments and duties for mission control." While the scientists had initial success with the sprites, they struggled until the last days with the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment (MEIDEX) which tracks the flow of dust to better understand the climatic processes which can offset global warming. It also sheds light on the movement of viruses. Yair says that viruses can hitchhike on dust particles and in this way travel thousands of kilometers. "It's important to know where the dust is and what it is doing. Dust acts against the effect of greenhouse gases. Dessert dust is also an important source of minerals for ocean life. It transfers spores, bacteria, and viruses such as influenza from continent to continent," Joseph says. While NASA has three satellites observing the planet with sensors that can see the dust, Yair says the data they collect is limited by the satellites' orbital paths. The shuttle travels to places the satellites cannot reach and can collect information the satellites miss. The Israeli MEIDEX team did with 14 people, what a similar American experiment did with 150. Aside from the six-member team in Maryland, there was a two-person forecast team out of the Open University that hunted for the dust storms. And another six-person team stationed in Greece flew under the the ground track of the shuttle in the eastern Mediterranean collecting comparative data in the lower atmosphere to match what the shuttle was collecting in space, says Yair. Initially it appeared that this part of the experiment might fail, Yair says. Technical delays kept the shuttle from being in space during the spring when there are plenty of dust storms in the Middle East. January is not an intense dust storm period. "The first week we didn't catch any dust at all," Yair says. But in the last day they caught a dust storm over the Mediterranean that provided them with data, Joseph says. Flushed with the success of 15 days of scientific data collection, the team of six Israeli scientists waited for the shuttle to land on the 16th day. They planned to have a celebratory dinner and then return to Israel, Yair says, with the hope that the astronauts and NASA scientists would later come to Israel for a larger celebration. Yair recalls that the possibility of a problem, so late in the mission, never entered his mind. Then "the radio went dead and suddenly it was quiet. There were no blips on the screen. One of the people in the room said, 'this is not normal.' It took a moment or two to understand that the shuttle was gone. No one wanted to admit it." The team returned to Israel, and instead of welcoming Ramon back as a live hero, many, including Yair and Joseph, traveled to Moshav Nahalal and watched as his flag-draped pine coffin was laid to rest on February 11. Immediately after the crash, Joseph says the team had to prepare all information from the tests to give to two investigative committees, but the scientists have copies of all the data. Now Joseph feels a responsibility to give out as much information about the experiments as possible so that the astronauts' contribution will be understood. Despite its tragic end, the project remains one the most amazing things Joseph has ever done. It has provided so much scientific information and it was also exciting to coordinate such a large project with NASA, the Israeli Space Agency and the IAF, Joseph says. Yair says the death of his friend hasn't deterred him from believing in the importance of space travel. "It is absolutely important if you want to undertake quality science. There are things that only humans can do because you need the human eye, flexibility and human reasoning. I don't believe that robots can do it," Yair says. He wants to work on another such experiment one day, but it is hard to think about that now, he says "I need to recuperate. The crash was devastating for me." Since his return to Israel, Yair says he has felt the impact of the event on the lives of people here. "It touched so many people on the emotional and national level. I think that everyone loved Ilan. "Many children have questions about what happened. They want to know and understand. They were very proud of Ilan. I think Ilan represented the good part in each and every one of us. He was a true Israeli hero - brave, straightforward and optimistic. He was a good role model for us." As teachers, both Yair and Joseph have been inspired by the crash to show young people the importance of space and science. Yair says he always felt this, but that it seems even more critical in the aftermath of the crash. "We owe it to the memory of our seven friends," Joseph says.