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Sunday, 2 February, 2003, 09:32 GMT
Sharon backs space programme
Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (l), Ariel Sharon (c), Dan Kurtzer
Sharon paid tribute to the seven astronauts
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed that the Jewish state will send more people into space, despite the death of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, in the Columbia disaster on Saturday.

"Other Israeli astronauts will be sent into orbit," Mr Sharon told a cabinet meeting attended by US ambassador Dan Kurtzer, on Sunday.

Ilan Ramon
Colonel Ramon became one of Israel's best-known figures
"These seven astronauts paid the price for man's conquest of space... and the world salutes these heroes," he said.

Flags flew at half mast outside government buildings in Israel, as the country mourned the loss of Colonel Ramon and his fellow astronauts.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would continue to participate with the United States in its space programme.

Colonel Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, and his brother, Gadi, were being flown to the United States to be close to the astronaut's wife, Rona, and their four small children.

Non-stop coverage

News that Nasa had lost communication with the shuttle came just before the end of the Jewish Sabbath.

Eliezer Wolferman (right) is comforted
Colonel Ramon's father was giving a live TV interview at the time
Israel's Channel Two television had been interviewing Mr Wolferman live shortly before the scheduled landing.

After breaking away to a correspondent in Florida, the station's anchorman explained that Mr Wolferman, 79, had been taken away from the studio.

Word of the tragedy spread quickly.

Israel's television channels carried non-stop coverage of the unfolding disaster and groups of Israelis gathered around television and radio sets to hear the latest news.

"This was a dream come true for Ilan," Colonel Ramon's brother told Israeli television, in tears.

"He wrote me e-mails from the shuttle and was literally on cloud nine," he added.

National hero

Colonel Ramon's death is being treated as a national tragedy in Israel.

This is going to hit Israelis quite hard because it is very personal

Ricky Ben-Or, Israeli
The launch made the front pages of every Israeli newspaper, prompting headlines such as "Fly, Ramon, cut through the skies," "A great step for Israel," and "Touching the sky."

Israelis are now mourning the death of a national hero.

Many saw Colonel Ramon as a symbol of optimism after more than two years of conflict with the Palestinians.

"It's terrible because Israelis, my kids in school for instance, have been studying about space and the Israeli astronaut Ilan," said Jerusalem resident Ricky Ben-Or.

"We are a very depressed country at the moment. This is going to hit Israelis quite hard because it is very personal," he added.

"It was a celebration for the country and it is ending so tragically," said Hezi Yitzhaki of Tel Aviv.

"An entire country was so proud of him. We are already in such a bad state."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
"Their deaths were not in vain"
The BBC's James Rodgers reports from Jerusalem
"His family's grief is shared by a whole nation"

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01 Feb 03 | Middle East
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