From The Holocaust to Outer Space: The Story of Ilan Ramon

Kavod Connections

Born in 1954 to Holocaust survivors Eliezer and Tonya Wolfferman, Ilan Ramon grew up to become Israel’s first astronaut. On Sunday, May 8, 2022, Holocaust educator David Bitan shared the inspiring story of Ramon’s family ties to the Holocaust and his journey to outer space.

“When we’re talking about the Jewish people and the establishment of Israel,” Bitan said, “the story of the Ramon family beautifully describes the connection between the Holocaust disaster and this unbelievable achievement of being the first Israeli in space.”

Inspired by his family’s survival of the Holocaust, especially his mother’s survival of Auschwitz, Ramon joined the Israel Air Force (IAF) and accumulated thousands of hours of flight time. He was the youngest fighter pilot to participate in the 1981 bombing operation of Iraqi nuclear facilities and worked his way up to the rank of Colonel by 1994.

In 1997 NASA was preparing a flight crew for the Space Shuttle Colombia, due to his flight experience and the recommendation of his superiors, Ramon was selected to join the crew. As a Payload Specialist for the crew of seven and their research and experiment mission, Ramon and the Space Shuttle Columbia launched on January 16, 2003.

“Spending 15 days in Space, Ramon honored his heritage and religion by observing the Sabbath and requesting Kosher food for the mission,” Bitan said. “In addition, Ramon brought with him an Israeli flag, a copy of the Israel Declaration of Independence, the Torah, and maybe most symbolically a picture drawn by Petr Ginz who perished in the Holocaust.”

“Petr Gintz was deported to Auschwitz where he was eventually killed, but his drawing survived,” Bitan continued. “Imagine at 14-years-old, a little boy drawing earth from the moon, and who is going to fulfill this vision? This unbelievable dream? This is how influenced by the Holocaust Ilan Ramon was and how important it was for him to represent the Jewish and Israeli people as the first Israeli astronaut.”

After 15 days, 22 hours, 20 minutes and 32 seconds in space, Space Shuttle Columbia began to prepare for reentry. Upon reentry, on February 1, Columbia suffered catastrophic damage and exploded just 39 miles from landing at Kennedy Space Center. There were no survivors.

According to an official investigation, it was determined that upon launch the space shuttle orbiter’s left wing was damaged when part of the polyurethane foam insulation on the external tank broke off. The heat shield was compromised due to damage sustained during the initial ascent. The heat of reentry was free to spread into the damaged portion of the orbiter.

Posthumously, Ramon was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush in 2004.

“This is one of the things that represents the achievements of Ilan Ramon as a great leader for the Jewish People and the State of Israel,” Bitan said. “As the only foreigner ever to get this award from the President of the United States, is an unbelievable honor.”

Through his family and his achievements, Ilan Ramon’s legacy continues to strengthen and grow. Prior to her death in 2018, Rona Ramon set up and organized the Ramon Foundation, in honor of her husband and son, Asaf.

“Asaf was following in his father’s footsteps and was often recognized as one of the best young pilots in the IAF,” Bitan said. “At 21 years-old and six years after the death of his father, during a training exercise, Asaf tragically lost his life.”

According to the Ramon Foundation website, “Based on the educational paradigm of Ilan and Asaf Ramon, we have built an impressive network of educators who work from the Upper Galilee to the Southern Negev in Israel. This combination of incredible leaders work to inspire and educate young adults and students alike.”