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Israelis Mourn Loss of Their First Astronaut

The space shuttle Columbia disaster claimed the life of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

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

Colonel Ramon said the flight was a long time in coming. He told a news conference in early January that, although he was a patient man, he was eager to go.

"I have a lot of patience, and to be with these magnificent crew members, it's a pleasure," he said. "So, I don't want to be delayed again, but I'm sure we will have wonderful time together, as we already had in the last two-and-a-half years of training. I'm ready to go."

Colonel Ramon's military career began some three decades ago. He fought in the 1973 Arab Israeli War and the Lebanon War in 1982. He was also reported to have been one of the fighter pilots who destroyed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. The attack, a daring raid in which eight Israeli warplanes flew for hours undetected in Iraqi airspace, destroyed the French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad.

Colonel Ramon served as a fighter pilot in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s logging thousands of hours in advanced fighter aircraft, including the US-made F-16.

He was chosen as Israel's first astronaut in 1997, then moved to Houston the next year to train for the shuttle flight. His wife and four children live in Tel Aviv, but were in Florida for the Columbia mission.

He became an overnight hero in Israel, when Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 16 days ago.

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

To commemorate the Columbia flight, the Israeli government had announced beforehand that a new medal, dedicated to the first Israeli astronaut, was to be minted.

It will now become a remembrance medal, with the biblical inscription from Psalms: "His excellency is over Israel, And his strength is in the skies."