Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The daughter of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon apparently had a premonition that her father was not going to return from space safely, Ramon's widow Rona said in an interview with the Israeli media.
Israelis were still grappling on Monday with the harsh reality that their hero Ramon was not going to return home. He died along with six Americans on Saturday, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Rona Ramon spoke to Israeli reporters after family, friends and Israeli officials, including Israel's ambassador to Washington, arrived in Texas to be with her and the couple's four children at this time of grief.
"Ilan was a very, very optimistic man," his widow said in her first interview with Israeli media on Sunday evening. "He never feared and also he left us with the feeling of confidence...
"Everyone who knows him, knows that it's impossible to remember him without a smile on his face, and we will continue forward with that same smile," she said.
Ramon recalled that during the launch, the youngest of her four children, her five-year-old daughter Noa, seemed to know that something might go wrong.
"At the time of the launch, when we were all on a high, because it was a wonderful event, my little daughter screamed, 'I lost my daddy," and apparently she knew. This is the only thing that is painful," Rona said.
On Saturday, when the shuttle didn't land on time, the families who were waiting in Florida to greet their loved ones were escorted away from the viewing area without an explanation, but they knew something had gone wrong, she said.
Noa, who had been anticipating her father's return, reportedly asked, "How can you die in space? People are supposed to die only on Earth."
The chief rabbi of the Israeli army sent an official to Houston over the weekend to help with the identification of the human remains that have been found in the shuttle. According to Jewish custom, every bit of human remains must be identified and properly buried.
Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau said the Israeli people had seen Ramon as a "symbol of national stature" and "a personal emissary, a man of brotherhood and pride, a man who glorified the name of the State of Israel and Jewish tradition."
Ramon, who was not a religious Jew, had nevertheless requested kosher food on the shuttle flight and had taken many Jewish items with him, including a special kiddush cup used for the Sabbath blessing.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, he had taken a small Torah scroll (the first five books of the Bible) that had survived the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. The scroll once belonged to Joachim Yosef, who was just 13 years old when he was sent to Bergen Belson. Yosef survived.
Ramon also took a small barbed-wire mezuza - a small box affixed to doorposts, which contains scriptures.
He also took national items such as the Israeli flag and Israel's Declaration of Independence.
In a special commemoration at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he did not know Ramon personally but was familiar "with his record as a daring fighter pilot and an excellent commander."
Ramon, a fighter pilot with more than 3,000 hours flight time, fought in two wars and was the youngest pilot in a mission to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
"I spoke with Ilan before he lifted off on his last mission and I also spoke with him during the flight. In my conversations with Ilan, I became acquainted with a man of values, who deeply loved this people and this land, a man who should not have been taken from us so suddenly - \-along with the hopes, dreams, history and future of all of us - to a place higher than we can realize," Sharon said.
Despite the disaster, Sharon said that U.S.-Israeli cooperation in space would continue.
"Mankind's journey into space will continue," Sharon said. "US-Israeli cooperation in this endeavor will continue as well. The day will come when other Israeli astronauts will be launched into space. I am certain that the memory of Ilan Ramon, Israel's first space pioneer, will be etched in our hearts."
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, who was also present at the cabinet meeting for the memorial, noted that Americans and Israelis had been joined together in joy 17 days ago when the shuttle was launched and now were joined by grief.
"In paying tribute to these heroes, our two nations can draw on deep reservoirs of courage, character and fortitude," Kurtzer said. "As we share triumphs, we also share misfortune...
"Just last week, Col. Ramon said from space, 'The world looks marvelous from up here - so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile.' His words evoked thoughts of an American poet, who said after an earlier Apollo flight, 'To see the Earth as we see it now - small and beautiful and blue in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together; brothers on that bright loveliness in the unending night; brothers who see now that they are truly brothers,'" Kurtzer said.
"Americans and Israelis are brothers indeed - on Earth and in space," he added.
The Israeli army announced on Monday that it had created a special e-mail address for the public to express it condolences to the Ramon family and to the people of Israel on the loss of Col. Ramon, Israel's first astronaut.
"All letters received by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] will be presented to the Ramon family," a statement said.