The remains of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli Air Force colonel who perished along with six American astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia, were identified and flown with some of his fellow crew members' body parts to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware today, Israeli officials said.
NASA officials did not confirm an Israeli radio report that Ramon's is one of four sets of remains that have been positively identified by the space agency. Ramon's DNA and jaw bone were examined to ensure that they were his, the radio report said.
Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut, and his death is a national tragedy in Israel. The discovery of his remains in east Texas is particularly important to Ramon's family, which is forbidden by Jewish law and tradition from conducting a funeral until his remains are available for burial.
Israeli Air Force Gen. Rani Falk said the remains of Ramon, a payload specialist onboard Columbia, will be flown back to the Jewish state on Sunday. The family will conduct a funeral on Tuesday in northern Israel -- after a day's delay because Ramon's son will celebrate his birthday on Monday, Falk said.
A C-141 cargo plane bearing all the human remains found so far departed Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana shortly before noon today en route to Dover. A military color guard was on hand as the airplane was loaded.
Quoting the chief Israeli army rabbi, Israel Weiss, the Associated Press reported from Jerusalem that samples from all the body parts found in east Texas had undergone DNA testing, and "we received a clear, positive, scientific answer that leaves no room for doubt" about the identification of Ramon's remains.
However, officials in Dover suggested that the identification of some of the remains is yet to be completed, and will rely on dental records, X-rays from medical files and DNA analysis. There is no word on how long that will take.
The mortuary in Dover, the largest such military facility in the country, also received the remains of the seven astronauts killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, as well as those of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
The Associated Press reported that Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, said NASA officials told the Ramon family that the astronauts had 60 to 90 seconds between the moment they saw that something was amiss and the disintegration of the shuttle. "These seconds are always spinning around in my head," Wolferman said, according to the AP. "It's very difficult, as if I'm with them and I try to imagine what they went through. One second is like 20 years. I can't explain it; it's hell, hell in the sky."