| Ilan Ramon’s wife Rona and their five-year-old daughter Nora. (AP/PTI)
Jerusalem, Feb. 2 (Reuters): Roaring up as rear guard for his F-16 formation and exposed to anti-aircraft fire as Iraq’s nuclear reactor went up in flames below — that is how a select few in Israel’s top brass will remember astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Long before the air force colonel flew into space on the ill-fated Columbia shuttle that broke up over Texas yesterday, Ramon was the youngest pilot to take part in the June 7, 1981, Israeli air strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor’s core. The man who would become Israel’s first astronaut was 26 at the time.
The attack drew international condemnation but some strategic analysts have since said it set back by years an alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons programme.
“Ilan was only a captain, but we knew he was the right choice for the job,” Major-General Amos Yadlin, a veteran of the mission, said today. “He was cool-headed, modest, sort of a humble hero — not like most macho top-gun flyers.”
The eight F-16 fighter jets struck towards evening, dropping two one-tonne bombs on the reactor and speeding off into the blinding sunset. Ramon was in charge of planning fuel consumption for the four-hour round trip over hostile territory.
“There was no option for refuelling in mid-flight,” Yadlin said. “Logistically, he achieved what was thought impossible.”
According to Yadlin, Ramon volunteered to bring up the vulnerable rear in the formation. “It was simple for Ilan. He said, ‘I’m not married, I don’t have kids, why not'’” In a photograph taken after the raid, his comrades are grinning widely at the camera, and one is flashing the V-for-Victory sign. Ramon is standing in the rear in a military at-ease pose, with only a hint of a smile on his face.
Iraqis expressed regret today at the US space shuttle disaster, but thanked “God Almighty” that the dead included the Israeli astronaut, AFP adds. “I thank God Almighty for avenging my country,” said primary school teacher Ata Ahmad, looking up and raising his two forefingers in the air. “I still remember the day when he bombed our country in a hateful crime against Iraq and the Arabs,” said Ahmad, a pensioner sitting at the 120-year-old Al-zahawi Cafe in central Baghdad.