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Israel in Shock over Death of <i>Columbia</i> Astronaut Ilan Ramon - 2003-02-01

The news of the shuttle disaster came at mid-afternoon Israel time. The crew included Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

Israelis watched in shocked disbelief as television screens carried the unmistakable images of a catastrophe.

It was especially meaningful for Israelis, who had reacted with great national pride to this flight, because it was carrying an Israeli astronaut.

The office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued a statement saying the government of Israel and the people of Israel "are as one at this difficult time."

Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force and former fighter pilot, became the first Israeli to fly in space with the launch of Columbia.

The 48-year-old pilot was the son of a Holocaust survivor. His military career included the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. He also fought in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the Lebanon War in 1982.

He served as a fighter pilot in the1970s, '80s and early '90s. He was chosen as Israel's first astronaut in 1997, then moved to Houston the next year to train for shuttle flight. His wife and four children live in Tel Aviv, but were in Cape Canaveral, Florida, awaiting the astronauts return from the Columbia mission.

He became an overnight hero when Columbia lifted off 16 days ago.

The launch was covered live on Israeli TV, and it was front page news in every paper.

One Israeli TV network was carrying the landing of the Columbia live when communication was lost.

Channel Two had Colonel Ramon's 79-year-old father at the station, and was preparing to interview him when the first images appeared. The TV network said, however, that he would not be available for comment.

Ilan Ramon began preparing for his role as a payload specialist on this Columbia flight in 1997. Much of the work he did during the 16-day mission involved an Israel Space Agency study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth's atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.

The Columbia disaster comes as an especially bitter blow to most Israelis, who had viewed the mission as a rare bright spot during more than two years of violence and insecurity.