On This Date: Ilan Ramon

Ilan Ramon (NASA)

On this date in 1954, Ilan Ramon was born in Israel. Both his mother and his grandmother survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a family history that shaped Ramon’s outlook and goals in life.

In 1997, Ramon was chosen for astronaut training by NASA. Like many astronauts, his background was as a military pilot. He graduated from flight school in 1974, then flew for the Israeli Air Force and served in a variety of capacities before turning his attention to astronaut training in July 1998.

Ramon trained for several years, and he was ultimately named as the Payload Specialist on the crew to fly Columbia on STS-107. That mission launched on January 16, 2003.

Astronauts are allowed to carry with them onboard a few personal items. Ramon chose a drawing called “Moon Landscape,” which had been sketched by a boy who died in Auschwitz, the same concentration camp that Ramon’s mother and grandmother had survived. He also took with him a mezuzah from the 1939 Club, a miniature Torah, a copy of a Torah on microfilm, and a piece of money from a rabbi.

STS-107 Crew (NASA)

Ramon spent fifteen days in space with Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, and Mission Specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chalwa, and Laurel Clark. These astronauts did not return to Earth safely.

During launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off the external fuel tank and hit the orbiter. Almost light as air, foam was assumed to be relatively harmless, but at launch speed, it can and did punch a hole in the thermal tiles on the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. Engineers who reviewed the video of the launch requested that the Department of Defense use its imaging abilities to examine the orbiter for damage, but NASA didn’t process those requests. Thermal tile damage from foam had occurred before, and everything had turned out okay.

Columbia Main Fuselage Debris on Grid in Hangar (NASA)

On February 1, at about 8:15a.m. EST, Columbia began its de-orbit to return for a landing at Kennedy Space Center. At 8:48a.m., a sensor in the left wing indicated something was amiss. Though no one knew at the time what was happening, the hole in the thermal tile had already allowed heat as high as 2500º F to hit the wing’s aluminum surface. By the time Columbia was over California, just before 6a.m. on the West Coast, its wing exhibited a bright streak visible from the ground. Several sensors began reading “off-scale low”; the sensors weren’t functioning because the wing had been damaged internally.

Over the course of several minutes, the orbiter broke apart, succumbing to violent supersonic forces that pull an object in multiple directions at once. Through most of this breakup, the crew cabin remained intact, a testament to the shuttle’s design engineers. Eventually, though, even that component broke into pieces. The crew was dead by 9:01a.m. EST on February 1, 2003. President George W. Bush announced the accident that afternoon and assured the country that the shuttle program would continue, though he set its end date the following year for 2010.

While aboard Columbia, Ilan Ramon kept a diary, thirty-seven pages of which survived the accident. Ramon’s wife, Rona, put two pages of that diary on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Rona Ramon, 2012

Though we had watched the coverage of the Columbia accident in 2003, we became informed about Ramon at a screening of the film An Article of Hope at Chapman University. You can read the guest post by Christopher Cowen, one of the film’s producers, HERE. More recently, we attended a celebration of the naming of the Ilan Ramon Day School here in California, an event at which Rona Ramon spoke eloquently about her husband’s life. You can read our post about that HERE.

On this anniversary of Ilan Ramon’s birth, we remember that he died doing what he most wanted to accomplish in life and that the space shuttle program made it possible for a wider variety of people to reach space than ever before. Ramon was just 48 years old when he died, an age not very far off for this Lofty duo, offering us yet another reminder to appreciate the life we live every day.

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