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Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 11:31 GMT
Israel's astronaut carries nation's dreams
Colonel Ilan Ramon
All eyes are on Ilan Ramon

As poster boys for the Israel Space Agency go, it does not come much better than Colonel Ilan Ramon.

As the son of an Auschwitz survivor, who grew up to become a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force and fought in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War - his personal history is intertwined with that of his nation.

I know my flight is very symbolic for the people of Israel, especially the survivors, the Holocaust survivors, because I was born in Israel, many people will see this as a dream that is come true

Ilan Ramon
When he blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Ramon will become the first Israeli in space and make Israel the 30th nation to have a citizen fly in orbit.

His flight has become a welcome distraction for Israelis troubled by the ongoing violence in the Middle East and a source of national pride.

Religious artefacts

Ramon will not be the first Jew in space, others who went before him include Judy Resnik, who was killed in the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Nor is Israel's first astronaut a strict practising Jew when on the ground.

But with the eyes of a nation upon as he makes this first symbolic flight, Ramon has been keen to play tribute to his religious heritage.

Drawing by Peter Ginz
Ramon will take a picture drawn by a boy killed in Auschwitz

"As an Israeli and a Jew I asked Nasa if it would be possible to supply kosher food for my menu in space," Ramon said.

"I was surprised and overwhelmed with the effort Nasa put in to trying to accommodate my request," he added.

Among the few personal possessions he will take with him on his 16-day voyage will be mezuzahs - small cases that are hung on door frames of Jewish homes and contain inscriptions from the Bible.

He is also taking a book of Psalms which was given to him by Israel's President Moshe Katsav - the microfiche of the Bible is the size of a credit card.

Tribute to victims

But probably of greatest resonance is a picture drawn by a 14-year-old Jewish boy name Peter Ginz before he was killed in Auschwitz in 1944.

I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for my parents and their generation that whatever we've been fighting for in the last century is becoming true

Ilan Ramon

Ramon's own mother Tonya Wolferman was a survivor of the Nazi death camp.

The pencil drawing, entitled Moon Landscape, shows a view of the earth from the surface of the moon, as imagined by the boy.

"I know my flight is very symbolic for the people of Israel, especially the survivors, the Holocaust survivors, because I was born in Israel, many people will see this as a dream that is come true," Ramon explained.

"I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for my parents and their generation that whatever we've been fighting for in the last century is becoming true."

Marking the Sabbath

As a representative of the Jewish nation Ramon did face one difficulty though - how to mark the Sabbath in space when a sunset and sunrise occurs every 90 minutes?

Time permitting, Ramon says he wants to observe the Jewish day of rest as "an act of solidarity with the Jewish tradition".

Shuttle Columbia
Observing the Sabbath in space proved a puzzle

The ceremony to mark the Sabbath is supposed to begin at sundown, but when the shuttle is in orbit the sun rises and sets 16 times in a 24-hour period.

To solve the theological conundrum Ramon consulted scientists and rabbis alike, and finally they hit upon the solution that he would follow Houston time - the home of Nasa's mission control.

Thanks to the practical restrictions of being in a spacecraft Ramon will also forgo the lighting of candles that features in the Sabbath ceremony.

And he will of course not refrain from all forms of creative labour, such as using electricity and writing, as strict religious Jews do.

Another time peculiarity that the trip has thrown up is that Ramon will miss the upcoming Israeli general election on 28 January.

As a result Ramon has been issued with an absentee ballot, but he said he does not intend to vote.

See also:

13 May 02 | Science/Nature
25 Jun 02 | Americas
19 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
07 Nov 01 | Americas
03 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
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