A couple of Sundays ago, our colleague who runs the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education invited us to the event celebrating the naming of the Ilan Ramon Day School here in California.
Ilan Ramon was the Isreali astronaut on the STS-107 crew in 2003. After completing the objectives of that science-oriented mission, the STS-107 crew perished as the space shuttle Columbia reentered Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart over the southwest United States only minutes before it was to land. Among the objects that survived the accident were thirty-seven pages of the personal diary Ramon kept during the mission.
At the event, Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow, spoke beautifully about those pages and presented the head of The 1939 Club, an organization dedicated to Holocaust education that helped host the event, with an artfully designed replica of the surviving diary. One of the most heartwarming stories was of Ilan as a youngster explaining to his schoolmates that he was a miracle, the child and grandchild of Auschwitz survivors. Rona also spoke about the Ramon Foundation, which honors both her husband and her oldest son, who died in a military training flight in 2009. She founded the organization to foster leadership and scientific and technological research in Israel and expressed appreciation that such values are embodied by the school that now bears her husband’s name.
The event itself was brimming with food and dancing. And the Beverly Hills Hotel was an especially charming venue, a place we were glad to finally see in person. The hundred-year-old hotel welcomed royalty and celebrities among their guests. Charlie Chaplin was a guest in the 1920s, the Rat Pack of the 1950s drank in the Polo Lounge, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed there in the 1970s. Neil Simon’s film version of California Suite was filmed at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Among the other guests at the celebration was our Lofty Ambitions first-ever guest blogger Chris Cowen, who was a producer on An Article of Hope, a documentary about the Columbia accident that focuses on Ilan Ramon and the Judaica he brought to space. It was great to chat with Chris again in person.
Next to Chris sat Scott Pomrehn, the Director of the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, California. The center opened in 2010 and is now hosting exhibits and educational sessions. Right now, “Suited for Space” shows visitors the history and design of spacesuits. Scott is really excited about the center, which does a lot of educational outreach with kids and also houses one of the 48 Challenger Learning Centers in the world.
One of our longest conversations was with former astronaut Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish resident on the International Space Station when he spent three months there in 2008. He also flew on STS-132 in 2010 for Atlantis’s penultimate mission. In fact, when we were at Kennedy Space Center for Endeavour’s not-launch, we were scheduled to interview Reisman on launch day. When the launch was scrubbed, all the interviews were too.
We enjoyed talking with Reisman, who now works for SpaceX. He said that the planned April 30 launch of the Dragon capsule looks pretty good, and he doesn’t expect a delay, at least not beyond those somewhat routine, last-minute, day-or-two delays. Because Reisman flew on all three remaining shuttles, we couldn’t help asking which orbiter was his favorite. Like many, he had trouble committing, though he did say that each handled differently and Discovery had more vibration on re-entry.
We were again reminded of Stephen Colbert’s advice during his commencement speech at Knox College in 2006: say yes, say yes-and. We said yes to a small invitation from a thoughtful colleague to an event to celebrate education and the Jewish tradition, and we met another astronaut. Without any evident bitterness, Rona Ramon portrayed her husband Ilan as someone who said yes to opportunities both small and much, much larger and, sometimes, dangerous.