NASA marks 20 years since Israeli astronaut died in space shuttle disaster

Ilan Ramon’s former rabbi was among the speakers at the ceremony


American space agency NASA has honoured Jewish astronauts that died in both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

In a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral last week, speakers paid tribute to those who died in the fatal crashes, the worst disasters in the agency's history.

The 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle destruction shocked the world as the space shuttle broke apart upon reentry, 16 minutes before its planned landing.

Amongst the seven fallen crew members on the shuttle was the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Ramon, a colonel of the Israeli Air Force and fighter pilot, was a Payload Specialist on the operation.

A Florida Chabad rabbi who knew Ramon and his family personally, spoke at the ceremony.

Zvi Konikov, the director of the local Lubavitch community paid tribute to Ramon, saying: "Ilan was not only good at asking questions, but I think he gave us the answer: Part of the reason Ilan wanted to know when the Sabbath begins on the space shuttle was to know precisely when to recite the kiddush, or benediction over his creatively prepared grape-juice container and straw”

Whilst in space, Ramon ate kosher food and observed the Shabbat. Even with the destruction of the space shuttle, some pages of Ramon’s diary survived and revealed a handwritten Kiddush prayer.

Ramon, son of Holocaust Auschwitz survivors also took with him a Sefer Torah from Holocaust Survivor Professor Joachim Joseph and a drawing by 14-year-old Peter Ginz, who was killed in the death camp.

“Ilan taught us a powerful message” Rabbi Zvi Knikov continued. “No matter how fast we’re going, no matter how important our work, we must pause and think about why we’re here on Earth, and that’s what we’re doing today. We pause to recall the memory of all those courageous souls”

During the ceremony, a wreath was placed at the Space Mirror memorial with a minute of silence and a bell rang after each of the 25 names of the lives lost in the tragedies.

In 2009, another tragedy occurred in the Ramon family when 21-year-old Israeli Air Force fighter pilot Captain Asaf Ramon, son of Ilan and Rona Ramon was killed during a training mission.

In 2010, Rona established the Ramon Foundation. The foundation’s website declares its vision as aiming to “ignite the three essential values which Ilan and Asaf Ramon stood for – academic excellence, social leadership and groundbreaking courage.”

Rona Ramon was a beloved, influential Israeli figure and an inspirational person to many in the country. In 2018, Rona Ramon died from pancreatic cancer at 54. She was a beacon lighter at Israel’s 68th Independence Day in 2016 and was awarded the Israel Prize posthumously.

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