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Hero’s triumphant return turns into nightmare

Odiin (Israel), Feb. 1: He was the newest hero of a country yearning for one, and in towns like this one across Israel today people gathered in front of their television sets, happy and expectant, to watch the homecoming of Col Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut.

Col Ramon’s father, Eliezer Wolferman, was in a studio of Channel Two television, part of a panel of family and experts gathered to watch the landing live. Another panel member, Eitan Ben-Eliahu, a former air commander, was speaking about the air force's pride in the pilot’s achievement. That was when Channel Two’s correspondent at Cape Canaveral sliced in, urgent and grave. “There’s something going on here,” he said.

Communication had been lost with the space shuttle Columbia. No one here knew it yet, but in the morning sunshine above Texas the spacecraft had begun burning up.

It is not too much to say that along with an Israeli flag and a drawing by a child who was a victim of the Holocaust, Col Ramon, a 49-year-old father of four, carried Israel’s dreams with him.

He represented the accomplishments this young country would prefer to dwell on its astonishing progress in technology and science as well as its preferred self-image, as an honoured member of the family of nations, cooperating with others to advance humanity.

Col Ramon, an air force pilot, had performed his share of military missions, even taking part in the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

But as he rose into space more than two weeks ago, he seemed to transcend the conflict here, to slip the bonds of history, geography and politics that can make other Israelis feel trapped.

“One cannot remain indifferent to the sight of an Israeli who has the great privilege of being so detached from everything that happens here, floating there in another world, like one of the angels,” wrote Avraham Tirosh in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest newspaper, on the day Col Ramon took off. Although he jokingly expressed concern about the possibility of an Israeli settlement on the moon, Yasir Abed Rabbo, the spokesman for the Palestinian authority, had also set the conflict aside to wish Col Ramon a safe return.

This evening, Ezer Weizman, the former President of Israel and a former pilot, appeared on Israeli television to assess the first reports.

His wife, Reuma, had befriended Col Ramon, and she had been in regular e-mail contact with him during his journey.

“The reports are not good,” Weizman said. “I hope we are all wrong. But I do not believe in miracles.”

A brother-in-law of Col Ramon briefly appeared on the radio, but he was crying so hard that the interview was abandoned. In a statement early this evening, the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, had not yet given up hope, saying: “The state of Israel and its citizens stand at this difficult hour with the families of the astronauts and Col Ramon’s family, the American people and the US government with a joint prayer to God the creator that the astronauts will return safely to their homes.”

The foreign ministry sent a team to bring home relatives of Col Ramon who had gone to the US to welcome him from space. Despite an election campaign and the grinding developments of the conflict or perhaps because of all that Israelis had raptly followed Col Ramon’s mission.

Col Ramon was born in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, but was raised in the Negev desert, in the city of Beersheeba.

Col Ramon’s mother survived the Holocaust, and he went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, to find the right relic of that horror to take with him. He picked a picture drawn by a boy named Peter Gantz, while he was in the Terezin camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

It was a drawing of the earth as Peter, from inside the barbed-wire fences of the camp, imagined it would look from the moon.

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