Ilan Ramon is to take off today in 2 and a half hours from Kennedy Space Center. He is the first Israeli ever in Space, and the TV and radio here are going crazy.
Ramon is 48 years old, married to Rona and father to 4 children.
FROM JERUSALEM POST
Israel Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon is scheduled to become the first Israeli citizen in space on Thursday, after NASA resolved several safety concerns and cleared the space shuttle Columbia for liftoff.
Ramon is a member of the STS-107 shuttle mission scheduled for launch between 5:39 p.m. and 8:09 p.m. Israel time. He is a payload specialist and joins six American crewmates on the 16-day marathon science mission.
NASA kept the launch time a secret until Wednesday, in keeping with post-September 11 security measures. This flight is surrounded by even more security than usual because of Ramon's presence.
Aby Har-Even, the head of the Israel Space Agency, said when he goes to dinner he is escorted by two police, not something he's used to. He said "We were quite surprised with the very strict security [at NASA]."
About 300 Israelis are expected for the launch, most of them guests of Ramon and the Israel Space Agency. Excellent weather is forecast.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Education Minister Limor Livnat spoke to Ramon on Wednesday.
"I am very proud of the first Israeli astronaut. Congratulations to you and the whole crew," Sharon said. "I wish you well and that you enjoy yourself and all return safely."
"I know you are taking some symbolic things into space [including] a book of Psalms which you received from the president and a picture drawn by a boy in the ghetto," Livnat said. President Moshe Katsav sent a microfiche of the Bible the size of a credit card to Ramon to carry on his journey, Beit Hanassi said Tuesday.
"I have something else that is very meaningful," Ramon replied, "something symbolic and exciting that I'll show you from space."
"It's a great privilege to represent the State of Israel," Ramon added. "It's a great honor for me."
Ramon said earlier that he would take Jewish symbols or ritual objects with him that correspond to the timing of his particular mission.
"I'm going to carry special things and try to express something about the unity of the Israeli people and the Jewish community. I have some ideas," Ramon said, "but for the time being, I will keep them deep inside of me. It will be a surprise."
One of the items Ramon is carrying into space is a pencil drawing entitled "Moon Landscape." Created by a 14-year-old boy named Peter Ginz, it shows how Earth might look if you were on the Moon and looking back at our home world. What makes the drawing so important to Ramon is that it was created while Ginz was in a Nazi concentration camp, before the boy died in 1944.
Ramon, 48, is the son of Holocaust survivors.
"I know my flight is very symbolic for the people of Israel, especially the survivors, the Holocaust survivors," said Ramon. "Because I was born in Israel, many people will see this as a dream that is come true."
Labor Party chairman Amram Mitzna sent Ramon a letter on Monday in which he predicted that the astronaut would return to a different Israel and a different government.
"Two weeks after you blast off on what will be a decisive day for the State of Israel, we in Israel will try to do a similar thing: to blast off to a new future in which we will be able to invest in education, in science, in order to better use Israel's most precious natural resource our quality human resources and brain power," he wrote.
Ramon will be in space during the January 28 election and was sent an absentee ballot, but he does not intend to vote.
Although Jewish astronauts had flown in space before most notably Judy Resnik, who was lost in the 1986 Challenger disaster Ramon's queries caught the space agency a little off guard, but officials were able to handle the requests.
"As an Israeli and as 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 trying to accommodate my request."
"I'm sure it's going to be a very special experience," said Ramon, who flew in the YomKippur War and has logged more than 3,000 hours in various jet aircraft and another 1,000 hours in F-16 jets alone.
Also on board will be fire, crystal, and vibration experiments. A variety of animals will be flying rats, spiders, bees, silkworms, ants as well as other biological specimens.
Once in space, work on the 86 payloads supporting 79 science experiments will be done around-the-clock with the crew splitting into two shifts. Ramon will serve on the red team with mission commander Rick Husband and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark.
Unlike space station missions which have to launch within a very narrow window of time to link up with the station, the STS-107 mission's launch window is constrained by lighting for the Israeli sponsored Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment (MEIDEX) which will monitor desert dust in the atmosphere. Engineers timed the launch window to ensure adequate lighting over the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean off Africa.
"Since I'm a pilot when you get into a fighter you anticipate how you feel when you pull some acceleration," Ramon said.
"Here it's the contrary I'm anticipating how does it feel to float. The next thing I would look for, the first opportunity [to look out the window] for me would be to look for dust storms in order to have mission success for MEIDEX, as well as looking through the window and seeing Israel and Jerusalem from space."
NASA gave the final clearance for the shuttle on Wednesday after a small crack was found on a stainless steel ball, about the size of the tennis ball, on another shuttle. The ball permits propellant lines to vibrate back and forth without breaking during launch. NASA reviewed paperwork and put a test ball through the stresses equivalent to 140 shuttle flights to assure that even if one of the balls on Columbia was damaged during launch, it would not harm the mission.
When Ramon was selected as an astronaut in 1997, he was told that he could fly in two years. But NASA had to find a suitable mission for MEIDEX's science requirements. The crew was officially announced in 2000 for a planned June 2001 launch date. But a variety of different technical problems, management decisions, and higher priority flights resulted in a total of 18 delays.
"I have a lot of patience and to be with these magnificent crew members is a pleasure," Ramon said. "I don't want to be delayed again, but I'm sure we'll have a wonderful time together as we have in the last two and a half years of training."
In contrast with his intense training, the past days have been a time for Ramon and his crewmates to relax. A week before launch, they entered isolation and only came in contact with people who had been medically cleared. They were allowed to see their spouses, and the day before launch they went flying in high performance aircraft.
Ramon was born June 20,1954 in Tel Aviv. He and his wife Rona have four children