Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster Claimed Israeli Astronaut and Judaica Trove

On 10th Anniversary, Documentary Details Loss of Ilan Ramon

7 Heroes: Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon died along with six others when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003.
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7 Heroes: Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon died along with six others when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed on Feb. 1, 2003.

By Curt Schleier

Published January 29, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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February 1 marks the 10th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, a tragic accident that claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including an Israeli named Ilan Ramon. Many of the details have been forgotten in the decade since the incident, but a new documentary, “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope,” which airs on the Public Broadcasting Service on Thursday, January 31, reveals that Ramon’s journey had special meaning not only for his country, but for Jews everywhere.

Ramon, a colonel in the Israel Air Force, was the mission’s payload specialist. An Israeli fighter pilot who participated in Operation Opera, the 1981 raid that destroyed the unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor, he was the son (and grandson) of Holocaust survivors.

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Ramon carried into space with him a drawing of the earth as seen from the moon, sketched by a 14-year-old who died in Terezin. He also brought a mezuza wrapped in barbed wire that was created by a San Francisco artist.

Perhaps most important was the small Torah he took with him. It originally belonged to Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, the Israeli scientist working with him on the mission. Joseph got it from a rabbi in Bergen-Belsen who performed a secret bar mitzvah for him. The rabbi insisted that young Joseph let the world know what happened to the Jewish people, which is why Joseph agreed to let Ramon take this precious cargo into space.

Filmmaker Daniel Cohen spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about making the film, producer Tom Hanks’s reaction to the finished product and how the film changed him.

Curt Schleier: The shuttle disintegrated as it returned to Earth. What did you know about the disaster before you started work on the documentary?

Daniel Cohen: I knew a lot about it because I’m a space geek. Space exploration has always been a passion of mine. When I was a little boy, the big blue chair in my living room was my Mercury space capsule. I was very tuned into what was going on. A couple of weeks after the accident, I read a small article about the scroll Ilan carried with him. My reaction was immediate: What a powerful way to tell a Holocaust story to a new generation.


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