Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →