An Astronaut's Legacy

by Baila Olidort - SPACE COAST, FL

February 5, 2003

In the wake of the shuttle Columbia’s tragic end, so many persistent, painful questions—the whys and wherefores surrounding events of February 1st—will remain unanswered long after NASA establishes the technical cause of the disaster. “This was not supposed to happen,” says Rabbi Tzvi Konikov, echoing the sentiments of everyone connected in one way or another to the mission. Rabbi Konikov is the Chabad-Lubavitch representative to the Space Coast, and will speak at NASA’s official memorial service Friday morning, on the runway of the Kennedy Space Center landing facility.

Faced with the unenviable task of fielding a deluge of calls from friends, Space Coast community members and journalists who covered the launch closely and suffer a stabbing sadness that begs relief, Konikov, who maintains contact with Ilan Ramon’s family in Texas, feels there is genuine solace to be found in that “Ilan accomplished his mission in life.” Speaking at a memorial program on Monday night, Rabbi Konikov pointed to the astronaut’s unabashed Jewish pride. “He achieved so much for so many with the mitzvot he proudly took with him into space.”

Ilan Ramon was raised in a secular Israeli environment and yet he insisted on identifying Jewishly in his public role as an astronaut. “He saw it as a tremendous privilege and responsibility, and he wanted to live up to that and do his people and his heritage proud,” explained Rabbi Konikov in an interview with Months before the launch, Ramon requested that NASA provide him with a kosher diet while on his mission, and then he consulted with Rabbi Konikov about observing Shabbat in outer space. Later the precious Torah scroll he took to space would make news, and three weeks before the launch, Ramon requested that Konikov arrange for him to take a dollar bill from the Lubavitcher Rebbe on his mission.

“So many journalists have called me to ask why Ramon took this dollar bill with him,” says Konikov. “It seems to me that Ramon wanted to hold on to the Rebbe’s idea of a mitzvah—in this case the mitzvah of tzedaka—as a source of light that would dispel the darkness of our world. Ilan made the point that no matter where one is, even in outer space, traveling faster than the speed of sound, one must pause to consider their purpose and mission in life. Ramon did this in a very literal way, and in doing so he served as a truly illuminating example to millions, especially to Jewish children who see him as a Jewish hero.”

Indeed, Ramon’s final acts of Jewish assertion leave a legacy that is fast generating a very concrete expression of Jewish unity. Almost immediately after the disaster, friends of the Konikov family and Chabad of the Space Coast decided to pool their resources to donate a new Torah scroll in memory of Ramon. Konikov informed Rona Ramon, the astronaut’s wife, of the gift which will be “presented to the Ramon family in time for Tal Ramon’s bar-mitzvah, in April,” says Konikov.

“The new Torah will ensure that Ramon will live forever in our lives,” said Rabbi Konikov.

At the invitation of Roy Bridges, director of the Kennedy Space Center, Rabbi Konikov will speak of hope, support and strength to a community of 600,000 that is vitally connected to the Space Center. “This community’s entire economy is based around the Space Center,” says Konikov, “so we need to find a way to mourn and grieve, while pushing ahead at the same time.”

For the families of the astronauts and members of the space program, the demoralizing blow of Columbia’s shocking end, after a presumably glorious launch and 16 days of productive research, will take a long time in healing. Unified by a spectacular pride on the morning of the launch, the community now finds unity in a deeply shared sense of loss. Ultimately, says Konikov, the courageous example of the astronauts will serve as an inspiration and a source of strength for the community to move ahead.

In a message to the Ramon family, the people who initiated the Ilan Ramon Torah Fund wrote: “We were broken all the way through our hearts and souls. Ilan Ramon, husband, father, astronaut, Israeli hero and symbolic of each of us as Jews of our home, the land of Israel, died as the space shuttle Columbia disappeared . . .

”It couldn't be hopeless or meaningless. Ilan Ramon chose to go to space as a Jew of the nation of Israel. He carried with him a Torah scroll, the life of the Jewish people. He meant life to all of us, and his memory will forever give us life. We want his family to know and feel that he has become a part us, our personal as well as the Jewish people's history.

”We are writing a Torah in the memory of Ilan Ramon to be dedicated and given to the Ramon family in Israel so he will live forever in our lives. One day, with G-d's help, someone will take that Torah scroll to space.”

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