Time and Space: Decade After Fatal Mission, Film Covers Israeli Astronaut’s Legacy

January 15, 2013 2:32 am 0 comments

The late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Photo: NASA.

Dan Cohen describes Ilan Ramon, the first and only Israeli astronaut, as “a man used to rising to the occasion.”

On Jan. 31 at 9 p.m., Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope—a documentary directed by Cohen—will air on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Ramon’s death.

Israel sent one of its best on NASA’s fatal Columbia mission: Israel Air Force (IAF) Colonel Ramon was 46, an engineer (electronics and computers), a pilot, married and a father of four. As a combat pilot, he was an integral part of the 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. He trained for Columbia at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Officially designated as a payload specialist, Ramon was described by Commander Mike Anderson as “fully integrated with the crew.”

Ramon, one of the mission’s seven casualties, is the only non-American to receive the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor (awarded posthumously). He was chosen to be a NASA astronaut in 1997. By 1998, he had begun a rigorous, five-year training program.

“From the moment he arrived in Houston until he lifted off, Ramon went through a transformational change. He came to understand who he was and what he represented,” Cohen told JNS.org.

Ramon considered himself a representative of all Jews and all Israelis. Although a secular Jew, as the first Israeli astronaut he recognized the importance of maintaining Jewish identity and unity.

“I am the son of a Holocaust survivor,” he once told Israel Radio. “I carry on the suffering of the Holocaust generation, proof that despite all the horror they went through, we’re going forward.” Ramon asked Mission Commander Rick Husband to provide kosher meals on board Columbia and received rabbinical guidance for Shabbat observance in space.

Among the topics explored in Cohen’s film is what astronauts carry into space. Some carry significant personal items; others bring items with a larger message. Poems and photographs, letters and legacy accompanied Ilan Ramon to space. His wife and children sent personal mementos and letters. Moshe Katsav, then Israel’s president, provided a Tanach (Bible) on microfiche. History traveled, too: a pencil drawing called “Moon Landscape” drawn by 14-year-old Peter Ginz, killed at Auschwitz; a kiddush cup; and the flag of the IAF also flew. These things, said then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at Ramon’s memorial service, “touched and excited all Jews” and were “a source of pride and united our hearts.”

The Israeli astronaut also carried a miniature Torah scroll saved from the Holocaust. The scroll had been given to a boy who celebrated his bar mitzvah trapped in the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The rabbi who had smuggled the Torah into the camp did not survive; the boy, the scroll—the rabbi’s admonition to tell the world what happened in that place and the boy’s promise—did.

Dr. Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, that bar mitzvah boy, became a physicist and was Israel’s lead scientist supporting Ramon on the ground. During their work together, Ramon learned the story of the scroll. When he returned to Houston, he asked permission to take the tiny Torah saved “from the depths of Hell to the heights of space.”

“Ilan felt Yoya’s promise deep within his heart and carried it with him deep into space,” Cohen said. “Keeping the promise is an important part of the mission of this film.”

Mission of Hope is the story of the most diverse shuttle crew ever to explore space. “Moving tributes like this film remind us all that spaceflight always carries great risk,” NASA Administrator and four-time space shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden said. “But fallen heroes like Ilan were willing to risk the ultimate sacrifice to make important science discoveries and push the envelope of human achievement.”

For Cohen, Mission of Hope became a personal mission. He sought to tell the story not as tragic, but rather as uplifting. “When Yoya asked, ‘What can I do to help you tell this story?’ I did not realize that conversation would lead me down a seven-year path,” he said. Meetings with General Rani Falk at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, with Ramon’s widow, Rona, and the other astronauts’ families followed.

Overall, making the film took the full 10 years since the Columbia tragedy.

“We had to wait for Rona (Ramon’s widow) to be ready,” Cohen said. “Raising money was also difficult.”

Dr. Alex Grobman, historical consultant for the documentary and executive director of the America Israel Friendship League, has great admiration for Cohen. Grobman, who also appears in the production, was called upon to verify the historical correctness of the story of the bar mitzvah in Bergen-Belson, including confirmation that there was actually a Torah at the ceremony.

“Filmmakers rarely care about historical accuracy,” Grobman told JNS.org. “Cohen’s approach was different—he was meticulous in his research. For him, this was a labor of love.”

“Ilan Ramon was an exceptional man, a charismatic personality who recognized that being part of the Columbia shuttle crew was a transformational experience,” Grobman said. “Ramon embodied the best of Israel. One cannot view this film without understanding the depth of his humanity, love of Israel, and responsibility to the Jewish people. Being involved with this production, as an historian, as a Jew, was a great honor.”

Space Shuttle Columbia, Mission STS-107, launched Jan. 16, 2003. For 16 days, every aspect of the flight and its scheduled experiments was considered fully successful. But as the crew prepared for landing, Columbia exploded and disintegrated. Little was left, either human or material.  Among the objects that did survive was the in-flight diary of Ramon, virtually intact, still legible.

“I felt that I am truly living in space,” he wrote. “I have become a man who lives and works in space.

Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope, produced by Christopher G. Cowen with Executive Producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, directed by Daniel Cohen for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), tells the story of the Columbia Space Shuttle and of astronaut Ilan Ramon. It incorporates NASA archival footage and video shot by fellow crewmember Dave Brown. Mission of Hope was shot on location in Jerusalem, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Washington, D.C.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    JNS.org – Natalie Portman, who directs and stars in the new Hebrew-language film adaptation of author Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, says that despite Oz’s record as a vocal left-wing critic of Israel, her film is not political. Like the book on which it is based, Portman’s film is about a young boy at the time of the founding of the state of Israel. “I think the movie is very much about this very particular, specific family story. Of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.