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Israel Mourns Death of Nation's First Astronaut, Ilan Ramon - 2003-02-02

As Israel mourned the death of the nation's first astronaut, its prime minister promised that the Jewish state will remain involved in space travel. Condolences continue to be exchanged between Israel and the United States over the deaths of Ilan Ramon and the six American crewmembers who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster.

At his cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged other Israeli astronauts would follow the example of Colonel Ilan Ramon.

Mr. Sharon spoke as his nation was immersed in shock and grief over the death of Colonel Ramon, the country's first astronaut.

The cabinet meeting was attended by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer. Mr. Sharon noted that the seven astronauts on the ill-fated Columbia had "paid the price for man's conquest of space, and the world salutes them."

Flags flew at half-staff and the Israeli newspapers and television were flooded with reaction to the disaster.

The head of the Israeli Air Force, Dan Halutz, was among those who paid tribute to Colonel Ramon. "Embarking on this space flight, Ramon undertook an important mission, the purpose of which was to expand human knowledge. And that mission to space, as in many other missions before, Ilan and his friends demonstrated an outstanding courage, determination, and vision that inspire us all," he said.

Commander Halutz, like Mr. Sharon, predicted that more of his countrymen would follow Colonel Ramon into orbit," calling it "the beginning" of Israel's space efforts.

Many Israelis saw Colonel Ramon as a positive symbol of optimism amid the gloom of more than two years of violence with the Palestinians.

During the mission, Colonel Ramon spoke with great pride at being a representative not only of Israelis but Jews around the world. "Of course I took several special things, first of all the Israeli flag, the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and I took some commemorative things from the Holocaust and I took also a wine glass, a very special glass for the Kiddush, for the Shabbat," Colonel Ramon said, referring to the prayers on the Jewish sabbath.

Even before the Columbia shuttle exploded as it was making its landing approach Saturday, the Israeli government announced a new medal dedicated to Colonel Ramon.

The medal's inscription integrates a verse from the Book of Psalms: "His excellency is over Israel and his strength is in the skies."