Israel Shocked and Devastated By Loss of Shuttle, First Astronaut

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israelis were shocked and devastated by the loss of the space shuttle Columbia with its seven crew members, including Israel's first astronaut.

Col. Ilan Ramon, a fighter pilot who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, gave Israelis something to be proud of at an otherwise dismal time.

NASA lost contact with the shuttle at about 9:00 a.m. EST when the shuttle broke up oat about 200,000 feet over Texas, 15 minutes before it was due to land in Florida.

President Bush telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Saturday and told him it was a "tragic day" for both the families of the astronauts and science.

"Bush said that he knows that a brave Israeli citizen -- Colonel Ilan Ramon -- was on
board the space shuttle Columbia, and delivered the condolences and support of the entire American people, as well as his personal condolences and support, to the Ramon family, at this difficult hour," a statement from the prime minister's office said.

Sharon likewise delivered his sincerest condolences to the American people and families of the astronauts, adding that "at moments like these, the hearts of Americans and Israelis beat as one," the statement said.

"Let us pray together and support each other," Sharon said.

Radio commentators here noted that it was ironic that the breakup of the shuttle occurred over Palestine, Texas.

'Maybe God is a Muslim'

The tragedy happed before the end of the Sabbath here, when many people do not listen to radio or television. Following the Sabbath, they expressed their shock and dismay at the tragedy.

Eran Katz, 37, said it felt like Israel received a blow. "I think it's very devastating," Katz said outside a Jerusalem video rental store. "It's practically unbelievable that such a thing happened.

"We're starting to believe that maybe God is Muslim because I thought of all the Arabs that are really happy that an Israeli and Americans are together, and basically I'm in total shock. Fifteen more minutes and it would have landed.

"I had to come here to take something easy to look at because I couldn't stand the thought. So many bad things you know happen in this country. At last something happy, you know an Israeli astronaut he was supposed to have come and hugged his family and have all these interviews and nothing. It's totally unbelievable," Katz said.

Katz's nine-year-old daughter, Gali said, "It's very, very sad."

"What happened from my perspective is a tragedy, such a happy story ending in such a sad way," said a 25-year-old Israeli, who asked not to be named. "He was sent from the state of Israel, the first Israeli in space, of course we thought of him as a hero and pioneer."

"Very, very difficult emotions," said Danny Bender, 30. "It's got nothing to do with having an Israeli on board. The loss of life [made it a tragedy]. They were 16 minutes away from the end and you see a fireball in the sky and you can't believe it. Unbelievable."

"We were sure that everything was going to be good and we're really sorry and shocked," said Ayala, 27. It is a national as well as international tragedy, she said.

"But we always see our point in the situation. I know that seven people [have] died but you think of Ilan Ramon because everybody heard about him, thought about him [and was] proud that he was going to be there for all of us.

"He was very important. In days like this that everybody feels so down he raised our morale and we felt much better. Something to get us out of the gray and that's why we all felt so good that we focused on it and now it's a tragedy and we feel sorry," Ayala said.

Sharon spoke with Ramon's father and brother in southern Israel on Saturday evening and they told him that they did not believe that such a thing would happen. His father and brother are to leave for the U.S. tonight.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Gillerman said the day was especially tragic for Israel since Ramon's space flight was a bright spot in an otherwise extremely difficult time for Israel.

"It was meant to be a very special day for us," Gillerman said in an interview with CNN. Gillerman said Ramon was a "national hero" for going into space and it had been a "ray of hope" in the midst of the last two years of ugly and vicious intifadah violence.

The fact that Ramon was the son of a Holocaust survivor also was a sign for Israel that "good prevails over evil." Ramon had taken a picture drawn by a young victim of the Holocaust with him into space.

Ramon wrote to Israeli President Katsav from outer space last week and told him that he was proud to be the first Israeli representative in space. He also said that he had prayed the tradition Jewish prayer, "Shema Yisrael"" (Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One) as they passed over Jerusalem.

According to reports, there were no signs of rejoicing over the disaster in the Palestinian territories, as there have been at other times of tragedy.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo was quoted as saying that the Palestinian Authority was "shocked at the news of the tragedy" and said they sympathized with the astronauts' families.