Five hundred and sixty kilometers above the Earth, the crew of the
space shuttle Atlantis has been busy giving the Hubble Telescope a
tune-up. For this mission, in addition to his tool kit, Mike Massimino
has packed a small cache of objects that holds deep meaning for him. He
has a family photo and school mementos, and this Catholic man is also
carrying a mezuzah, a symbol of the Jewish faith.
Mezuzah means "doorpost" in Hebrew. Jews attach them to the doorposts of their homes. Tiny prayer scrolls inside serve as reminders to live faithful lives with compassion, honesty and integrity.
Massimino's mezuzah is a replica of one carried by astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on its return home in 2003.
"It's fairly small," Massimino says, "and it's got the Star of David on it, and it's got the barbed wire that represents the [Nazi] concentration camps, around it."
Ramon's parents were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. He and Mike Massimino had become close friends during their early training days at NASA.
Massimino's first space mission was on Columbia in 2002, a year before Ramon's flight. He recalls being struck by the spiritual essence of the cosmos.
"My reaction was I felt like I … had a direct view into heaven, is how beautiful it was. It is just amazing."
So when Massimino learned that he was going back to space on Atlantis, he asked Ramon's widow, Rona, what he could do to honor his friend. She asked him to try to get a replica of the barbed wire mezuzah.
"I think it's our way of honoring the memory of the Holocaust victims and also, for me, on a very personal level, for my friend Ilan Ramon, who I miss very much."
The mezuzah - and its replica - were designed by San Francisco artist Aimee Golant.
"The mezuzah embodies the feeling of sorrow, yet hope and survival," she explains. "It had all those elements to it."
Golant is a sixth-generation metalsmith. She designed and crafted the mezuzah in her home workshop, using tools she inherited from her grandfather. He was also a Holocaust survivor, who had been imprisoned during World War II in a forced labor camp.
"My grandfather was singled out [by the Nazis] because he was so good with metal. Either you were either sent to Treblinka, or you went to a labor camp where you made bullets, or you stayed behind and were killed. Those were the options."
Golant was asked to make the original mezuzah by the 1939 Club, a Los Angeles-based organization of Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Club president, Bill Elperin, also a close friend of Ilan Ramon's, says for the older generation, this tribute is almost unimaginable.
"When you think about it, it's from Auschwitz to outer space in one generation. Who could have thunk that!" he marvels.
Back on Earth after his mission, astronaut Mike Massimino says he'll present the mezuzah to Ilan Ramon's widow.