Ilan Ramon (1954 - 2003) was a fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force and became the first Israeli astronaut, when he joined the space mission on board the Columbia Space Shuttle. He perished, together with the entire crew on the shuttle, which was destroyed in a crash upon reentering the atmosphere, on February 1, 2003.
Ilan Ramon was born in Ramat Gan and grew up in Beer Sheba. In 1974, he completed the IAF flight academy with honors. He served as a fighter pilot; and in 1981, he participated in the attack on the nuclear reactor in Iraq. After his discharge, he completed a degree in electronic engineering and computers at Tel Aviv University and later joined the development team working on the Lavi fighter jet. In 1988, he returned to the IAF and served in several senior positions, including an F-16 squadron commander.
Ramon was a Zionist and he believed in the importance of education and giving back to Israeli society, with all his heart. In light of his experience, talents and values, he was the natural candidate to become the first Israeli astronaut. In 1997, after passing the selection process and numerous tests, he was selected to participate in the Columbia Space Shuttle mission, as part of a cooperative agreement signed between the Israel Space Agency and NASA. He moved with his family to the U.S. for training at the Johnson Space Center, where he trained for four and a half years for his position as payload specialist on the Columbia.
The Columbia was launched on January 16, 2003, with seven astronauts on board, including Ramon. It spent 16 days in space and when re-entering the atmosphere, due to a malfunction, the shuttle disintegrated and all of its crew members perished. For Ilan Ramon, this historic position and the space mission were the realization of a personal and national dream. He left behind his wife, Rona, and four children. He is buried in the military cemetery in Nahalal.
The Columbia Mission
Columbia, the veteran space shuttle, was launched in January 2003, on what would turn out to be its last mission. The crew of the Columbia was comprised of seven astronauts: six Americans and Ilan Ramon from Israel. Their mission was to conduct dozens of experiments in space in a variety of scientific fields - physics, chemistry, biology, Earth sciences, etc., which would provide valuable scientific information to scientists worldwide. During the 16-day stay on the space shuttle, scientific experiments were conducted continuously, almost without a break. In order to take advantage of the time in the most efficient manner, the crew members were divided into two teams and worked in shifts: One team conducted the experiments while the other team rested, ate and slept.
In total, the crew members conducted 80 scientific experiments. As part of the Israel Space Agency’s agreement with NASA, a few experiments created by Israeli researchers were also conducted, including an experiment planned and prepared by students from Ort Kiryat Motzkin Middle School. In this experiment, called the Chemical Garden, the students wished to study, by way of the mission’s crew members, the difference between growing crystals in space as compared to growing them on Earth.
The MEIDEX experiment of scientists from Tel Aviv University was designed to study global climate changes. During the course of this experiment, observations were made of dust storms in the region of the Mediterranean Sea and an amazing phenomenon known as ‘Sprites’ was documented - an electrical halo which shines above the clouds during a storm. The results of the Israeli experiments were broadcast in real time to Israeli research teams on Earth. Additional experiments that were conducted were designed to assist medical and cancer research; the development of various technological fields, such as space technology and fire extinguishing; and to gain a more in-depth understanding of life sciences, through the study of microgravity on the bodies of different animals such as fish, mice and insects. Some of the results and experimental conclusions were lost with the shuttle, but some were broadcast and transmitted in real time to Earth and they continue to serve scientists to this day.
On February 1, 2003, after the mission was completed, the shuttle began its way back to Earth. During the re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, there was a malfunction, which was apparently a result of damage to the shuttle’s heat shield. Contact with the Columbia was lost, it disintegrated and burned and the crew members perished. Following the accident, the space shuttles were grounded and a special committee was appointed to investigate the circumstances of the disaster. The committee found a number of technical and organizational problems with the NASA space shuttle program, and submitted recommendations for improving the safety of future manned flights.
Commemorating the Memory of Ilan Ramon.
The flight of Israel’s first astronaut into space was a momentous national event, and Ilan Ramon’s death has been etched into Israel’s collective memory as a national disaster. Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space and the Israel Space Agency intend to commemorate and continue Ilan Ramon’s legacy; and each year, they conduct a number of educational space projects and conferences in his memory.
The Ministry coordinates and runs the programs through the government’s Ramon Foundation and in cooperation with other institutions as well as the private Ilan and Assaf Ramon Foundation. Ilan’s son, Assaf, who also completed the IAF flight course with honors, was tragically killed in a training accident. The purpose of the various programs is to encourage personal and social excellence through aviation, space, science and technology as well as groundbreaking Israeli excellence. The foundation has set as its goal to encourage Israel’s future generation to meet the personal and social potential inherent in each and every person, in order to create a more ethical and better society in Israel. Among the annual programs is the Young Science Olympics in memory of Ilan Ramon and the Columbia Crew, which is designed for students in the 7th to 9th grades. At this Olympics, groups of students compete to solve problems in the field of space and universe research.