Few Israeli boys who came of age in the 1970s ever thought of becoming astronauts. They yearned, instead, to join their country's air force, which led the victory in the Six Day War of 1967 that opened perhaps the most euphoric period in the young state's history.
"We all wanted to be pilots," recalled Reuven Segev, a high school classmate of Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, who died Feb. 1 aboard the space shuttle Columbia. "Space was like fantasy. I mean, it was in the papers, the Apollo, but it was very distant from us."
So when he graduated from high school and began his mandatory military service, Ramon chose the air force and became one of his country's elite fighter pilots. He was one of 12 men picked in 1980 to fly the first F-16s Israel purchased from the United States. Two years later, he was the youngest of eight Israeli pilots who flew for hours, undetected, to bomb Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.
When the air force asked him in 1998 to become Israel's first astronaut, at first he thought the offer was some sort of joke. In an interview last summer, he described driving home from air force headquarters in Tel Aviv especially slowly that March evening, mulling over words such as "astronaut," "space" and "moon," which until that day had seemed to have little to do with him.
He'd never even seen the movie "The Right Stuff."
During more than four years of training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Ramon mastered the science of space but also transformed himself into something of a statesman, accepting dozens of requests for speaking engagements from Jewish groups around the world. "He saw his role not only as a representative of Israeli science and society," said Zev Levin, a professor of geophysics and planetary science at Tel Aviv University, who oversaw the Israeli experiments conducted aboard the shuttle. "As time went on, he felt more and more that he was a representative of all Jewish people."
Ramon was born Ilan Wolferman, in June 1954, in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the younger of two boys. He changed his last name after finishing flight school (crafting it from some of the letters in Wolferman). He was following the example of Israel's founding prime minister, who had decreed that all Israeli fighters should have Hebrew names and changed his own from David Green to David Ben-Gurion.
Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, had fled Berlin for Palestine in 1935 and fought alongside his own father in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Ramon's mother and maternal grandmother lost most of their family in the Holocaust, but they survived the Auschwitz death camp and eventually made it to Israel.
Friends from Beer Sheva -- where his family moved when his father began working at the Dimona nuclear plant -- remember Ramon as a top student, especially in the sciences, who was popular with girls. At the same time, he was strait-laced, responsible, expected to achieve.
While in flight school, at a base not far from his parents' home, he would get together on occasional Friday nights with high school friends. They traded tales of their military training, and he described learning to fly the two-seater, French-made Fouga aircraft. One evening, the story was especially riveting, said Segev, now a professor of mechanical engineering at Ben-Gurion University. The steering mechanism of Ramon's plane had gotten stuck on a recent training flight, and Ramon and his instructor had had to abandon the plane. "There was no eject seat," Segev recalled. "Ilan had to crawl out onto the tail and jump, like in the movies."
The young pilot was injured in the incident, and he was grounded for several months before finishing the pilot's course with high honors, Segev said. He ejected again, years later, from an F-16, when it and another aircraft collided. After becoming an astronaut, he commented that surviving those two incidents vanquished any fear he may have had of space travel.
Ramon flew daily combat missions during the Lebanon war. Brig. Gen. Raanan Falk, now the air force attache at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, recalled heady days as a young pilot with Ramon, training on the powerful U.S.-made jets at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. That period was followed by more intense work back in Israel, training other pilots and preparing for the Iraq mission in 1981.
Falk, two years older than Ramon, stayed on the runway of an Israeli base as a backup during the Iraq mission. He remembers talking with his good friend a few days before and asking whether he realized the dangers he was facing. The planes were to fly in a tight formation, in hopes that Iraqi radar would consider them a single, commercial jetliner. Flying in the rear position, Ramon would be most vulnerable if the radar detected something amiss. Ramon said he understood, Falk recalled last week, but he seemed also to take the high stakes in stride.
"He smiled. Always smiled," Falk recalled. "Optimistic person."
The Israeli attack planes were detected, belatedly, and Ramon dodged two missiles fired by Iraq, Falk said. Israel never publicly said who had flown on the mission until the Columbia disintegrated.
'He Just Went About His Business'
Last Wednesday, Israel's Channel 10 broadcast a television interview with a youthful Ramon that was filmed shortly after the Iraq mission. The 27-year-old pilot, sitting in an F-16 cockpit and wearing his flight suit, spoke words that proved eerily prophetic.
"In the field, there are so many different things that can go wrong, that you have no way of knowing what will happen," he said in Hebrew. "Things happened faster than I expected. You don't think about anything but carrying out" the mission.
Ramon and Falk stayed close through Ramon's years at Tel Aviv University, where he received an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, and as each man rose through the air force ranks, with Ramon ending up in Houston and Falk arriving in Israel a year or so later.
When they spoke by telephone, which was often, they greeted each other without regard for the latest brass on their collars, saying only, "Hi, Captain," as they had years before. "Like young pilots," Falk recalled.
Ramon dated enthusiastically throughout his twenties, Falk said, until his met his future wife, Rona, at a party in Tel Aviv. "I saw in his face that this is a new story," Falk said. "He said, 'You have four children, so I will have four children.' He said, 'You have three boys and a girl, so I will have three boys and a girl.' And then he did it."
The boys arrived first: Assaf, now 15; Tal, almost 13; and Yiftah, 9. A daughter, Noa, was born shortly before the family moved to Houston in 1998.
The opportunity to train as an astronaut came out of the blue, at a time when Ramon was considering retirement.
President Bill Clinton had promised Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1995 that an Israeli could join the U.S. space program. The Israeli government decided the person should come from the air force, Falk said, and Ramon was chosen from a long list of candidates. He became a national hero, embraced by a country eager for good news after months of suicide bombings and Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed.
In Houston, the family wove itself into the local Jewish community, attending synagogue events and taking the children to Hebrew school, something that wouldn't have been part of their secular lives in Israel. They rented a two-story house in the comfortable suburb of Clear Lake, switching to an apartment after delays in the shuttle launch date pushed it past the expiration of their lease. Rona Ramon considered starting a massage therapy business but never did, said Maya Gijalva, whose son is in Hebrew school and bar mitzvah classes with Tal Ramon. Her time mostly was spent shuttling the children to activities.
Friends said Ramon rarely spoke about his past exploits as a pilot. Gijalva said she learned of the Iraq expedition only after the Columbia disaster. "He was just such a humble man," she said. "He just went about his business. He came home, he would spend time with the kids."
'I Know He Is Laughing'
Ramon prepared for the shuttle launch as a scientist and a Zionist, as a father and a Jew. He studied every detail of the experiments he would be conducting on dust particles and how they affect climate, and he took along science experiments from students in Israel.
To pay tribute to Holocaust victims, he took on the shuttle a copy of a drawing of a moon landscape as imagined by Petr Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy from Prague who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt ghetto. Petr later died at Auschwitz.
Ramon also took a miniature Torah scroll that had been smuggled out of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It belonged to Joachim H. Joseph, another Israeli scientist helping lead the experiments Ramon was conducting.
On a visit to Joseph's home in Tel Aviv two years ago, Ramon noticed the five-inch-tall scroll on top of a bookcase. He asked about it, and Joseph told him it was a gift from a rabbi who shared his barracks at Bergen-Belsen.
The rabbi had helped Joseph prepare for his bar mitzvah, giving him the Torah in hopes that it would survive.
Ramon listened in silence, eyes wide, and then told Joseph, for the first time, that his own mother was a Holocaust survivor.
Two months later, Ramon called from Houston and asked whether Joseph would let him take the Torah into space. Joseph agreed immediately, happy that the tiny scroll's story would be told to the world.
"It wouldn't have occurred to me to ask him to take it," Joseph said yesterday in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. "But he thought of it."
In an emotional news conference before the launch, Ramon held up the Torah for all to see, and recalled his mother's 18 months in Auschwitz. The handwritten scroll, he said, symbolized "more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive . . . and go from the darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future."
Although he was not religious, Ramon carefully selected Jewish artifacts -- a kiddush cup, a book of psalms, kosher space food -- that would add further meaning to his flight. When the shuttle passed over Israel on Jan. 26 and Ramon could see Jerusalem, he recited the Shema, the Jewish declaration of allegiance to one God that is the central tenet of the faith.
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Ramon prayed in Hebrew, according to an e-mail he later sent to Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Last summer, about a month before the originally scheduled shuttle launch date, Ilan and Rona Ramon sat their children down for a discussion, said Israeli journalist Yitzhak Ben Horin, who covered Ramon's story throughout his 41/2 years in Houston. They talked about the sounds and sights the children would experience at the launch. One of the youngsters asked about the space shuttle Challenger, which had broken apart seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral in 1986. Both the astronaut and his wife assured the children that the Columbia was safe, Horin said, and that NASA had taken every conceivable precaution. Ramon, his wife later told reporters, saw no reason to write a will.
His father and brother came to the United States for the launch, but his mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, could not travel and remained in Israel.
About an hour after the shuttle lifted off, Horin said last week, he asked Rona Roman if she was nervous.
"I'm so happy," he recalled her saying in response. "I know he is laughing all the way up. Because he is doing exactly what he wants to do."
Ramon's remains were flown from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Israel over the weekend. He will be buried with full honors on Tuesday at a military cemetery in scenic northern Israel, not far from one of the air force bases where he spent much of his career.
Rona Ramon chose the site, Falk said, so her husband "can see the base, and the airplanes flying over it, forever."
Moore reported from Jerusalem. Staff writer John Ward Anderson and staff researcher Samuel Sockol also contributed to this report from Jerusalem.