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Ilan Ramon - Israel's first astronaut

ILAN RAMON: ISRAELI HERO

By Alan Abbey. From: Jerusalem Post, February 1, 2003.

On April 29, 1997, the world knew that a real Israeli fighter pilot was to join a NASA crew. He was identified only as "Col. A.," a veteran F-16 pilot who had logged many combat missions and was an electrical engineer, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) said.

Col. A. had held a variety of both command and operational tasks in the IAF (Israel Air Force), including weapons research and development, the IDF said. He was 38 years old and had bailed out of his plane at least once in his career.

It was to be more than a year before the world learned Ramon's name. The IAF does not like to reveal the identities of its pilots, who are usually filmed either from behind or with their helmets on. But its hand was forced when NASA unveiled the name of Ramon and his backup Lt.-Col. Yitzhak Mayo.

Ilan Ramon was born June 20, 1954, in Tel Aviv. His wife's name is Rona, and the two had four children. His parents live in Beersheva. He graduated from high school in 1972 and began his military service. He then attended flight-training school.

Long before he received his college degree at 33, he distinguished himself in combat. He participated in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

"I love to fly," Ramon told an interviewer in 2002. "Flying aircraft -- fighter aircraft -- is great and I was very happy."

He moved on to A-4 and Mirage III-C aircraft training and operations before becoming part of Israel's first F-16 fighter squadron.

In 1974, Ramon graduated as a fighter pilot from IAF Flight School. From 1974-1976 he participated in A-4 Basic Training and Operations. From 1976-1980 he was in Mirage III-C training and operations programs.

In 1980, as part of IAF efforts to establish the first F-16 squadron in Israel, he attended the F-16 Training Course at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

From 1981 to 1983, he served as the Deputy Squadron Commander B, F-16 Squadron. It wasn't until the day after he flew into space that we learned he had performed an historic mission for Israel long before he flew into space. In 1981, Ramon was one of eight Israeli F-16 pilots who obliterated the French-built Osiraq reactor near Baghdad in a lightning raid that shocked the world.

It was a milestone in Israeli aviation history because the planes flew over enemy Arab territory for hours without detection. The pilots flew in a tightly bunched formation to send off a radar signal like that of a large commercial airliner.

The next year he flew missions over Lebanon as part of Operation Peace for Galilee. From 1983-1987, he attended Tel Aviv University. He received a bachelor of science degree in electronics and computer engineering.

From 1988-1990, he was Deputy Squadron Commander A, F-4 Phantom Squadron. During 1990, he attended the Squadron Commanders Course. From 1990-1992, he served as Squadron Commander, F-16 Squadron. He recorded a total of 1,000 flight hours in his F-16 by 1992. He accumulated more than 3,000 flight hours on the A-4, Mirage III-C, and F-4.

Ramon received the rank of colonel in 1994 and took over control of the air force's weapon development and acquisition department.

In 1997, a colleague called and asked if he'd like to become an astronaut. At first, Ramon thought the offer was a joke. It was evening, and Ramon was trying to leave the office and go home. In fact, he had been planning to retire from the air force.

"I told him, 'Come on, I don't have time for jokes now,'" Ramon said last year. "When I was a kid growing up, nobody in Israel ever dreamed -- well most people wouldn't dream -- of being an astronaut, because it wasn't on the agenda. So I never thought I would have been an astronaut. When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space. I was very excited."

He reported for training at Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1998. He brought along his wife, Rona, and their four children, aged 2-10 at the time.

As Ramon began to make the rounds in the media in the last few years, he let out details of his hopes for the flight, as well as personal details that added to the drama and interest in him and his flight.

Ramon said he would carry with him various artifacts that "emphasize the unity of the people of Israel and the Jewish communities abroad." Ramon did not reveal at first what those would be, but said he saw his planned mission in space as a "good stage to proclaim that we [in Israel] need you, and you [in the Diaspora] need us."

He began identifying himself as the son of a refugee father from Germany who fought in Israel's War of Independence, and a mother who survived Auschwitz. Ramon said that serving as his country's first astronaut was part of a "miracle" that stretched back 50 years.

Ramon was not an observant Jew, but said early on that he would eat only kosher food and try to mark Shabbat on board. There have been other Jewish astronauts, including David Wolf who was on the Shuttle Endeavor, and Judith Resnik who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986. However, he became the first to request kosher meals.

"This is symbolic," Ramon said. "I thought it would be nice to represent all kinds of Jews, including religious ones." He joked about affixing a mezuzah to the shuttle's door, but said it was up to the commander.

Ramon said being Israeli did not cause any problems inside NASA.

"Among the astronauts I'm pretty well blended," he said in 2001. "Sometimes they, of course, talk about the 'situation' and that's natural. Most of the time I'm just another astronaut having fun. Nothing special."