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Israelis pay respects to Rona Ramon, hailed by Netanyahu as ‘hero of the spirit’

Students inspired by Ramon Foundation projects pay tribute to a woman who encouraged them to ‘look farther afield to create a better society’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pays his respects to Rona Ramon, at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv, December 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pays his respects to Rona Ramon, at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv, December 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Thousands of people filed by the coffin of Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, at the Peres Innovation Center in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning.

“I would define Rona Ramon’s life as a tragedy of Biblical proportions, but she was also a hero of the spirit, of Biblical proportions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “The loss of Ilan and Asaf, her loss at a young age, these are cruel blows to a splendid family.”

Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first and only astronaut, was killed in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. Six years after the Columbia crash, their son Asaf, who had followed in his father’s footsteps to become an Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, was killed in a training accident.

In the following years, Rona Ramon became a national hero herself for her work with the Ramon Foundation and her leadership in the file of healing after tragedy. Rona Ramon, 54, died on Monday after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. She is survived by three children, Tal, Yiftah and Noa, and her parents.

A soldier pays his last respects by the coffin carrying the body of Rona Ramon, at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“What conquered Rona’s heart was the other side of this difficult coin, and this is the way in which she stood straight up and continued to work, not only as a wife who lost her husband and as a mother who lost her son, but as a leader who mobilized both herself and others to keep working, creating and leading in cultivating excellence, genius and the abilities latent in our people, and perhaps in each one of us, and the ability to raise this ever higher,” Netanyahu added.

On Wednesday, friends, politicians, members of the military and students passed by Ramon’s wooden coffin, beneath a smiling photo of her, arms outstretched behind a mountain panorama. According to Channel 10 news, the coffin was the same one used to transport her husband’s remains back to Israel in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

Many of the students wore shirts from the various programs connected to the Ramon Foundation, a charity founded in honor of Ilan and Asaf Ramon.

“We are here to honor Rona and her activities, and her way of life, which was to choose life,” said Oren Elkabetz, an instructor with the Ramon Foundation’s Aviators Club, a program that pairs Air Force pilots with schools in challenging neighborhoods to promote leadership and social responsibility.

Rita Gorbunov, second from right, and other students from the Amal Bet High School in Petah Tikvah pay respects to the coffin carrying the body of Rona Ramon, at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Every time she had to choose, she chose life,” said Elkabetz. “We bring this message to the kids, we work with them to create a generation that is better and stronger and more connected, and even when they find themselves in the worst situations, they can choose life.”

Rita Gorbunov, 16, from Petah Tikva, was part of the Ramon Foundation’s SpaceLab program, a group that won a nationwide contest to send an experiment to the International Space Station, courtesy of NASA. Her class at Amal Bet High School worked on a research project exploring whether astronauts can take calcium supplements to counter the problem of osteoporosis, or bone density issues, that arise from spending time in zero gravity environments. After winning a national competition, their research project blasted off into space in June 2017. The results, unfortunately, were inconclusive, but that was also a learning experience, said Gorbunov.

Space shuttle Columbia STS-107 crew members from left to right, front row, commander Rick Husband, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, pilot William McCool, back row, mission specialist David Brown, mission specialist Laurel Clark, payload commander Michael Anderson and payload specialist Ilan Ramon of Israel. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. (AP Photo/NASA)

“We learned to work together, to understand how to ask experts for help, when we need research information from doctors or other experts from around the country,” she said.

“This program really inspires kids to look farther afield,” said Ofer Zitman, a physics teacher who heads the SpaceLab program at Gorbunov’s school. “It combines aspects of biology, physics, chemistry. And it’s not only for personal knowledge and curiosity — the program really values looking for ways beyond the right here and right now to build a better society for everyone.”

Rona Ramon (L), widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon visits the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 28, 2008. (Flash90)

“Our experiments are really there to try and make a difference, to make space travel better,” said 15-year-old Noam Kuperman, part of the current SpaceLab class at Amal Bet. This year, he is working on an experiment to utilize the E. coli bacteria, combined with glucose and other chemicals, to make gas utilization on the space station significantly more efficient. “We know we’re going to win the competition, and just think, the space station will be running our experiment,” he said. “I mean, we’re only in 10th grade!”

Gas use is one of the biggest challenges that limits space travel, Kuperman explained to one of Rona Ramon’s friends outside of the Peres Center, as she wiped away tears.

“This is exactly what Rona would have wanted, to bring this young generation to space, and also to develop a way of thinking about their entire society,” said Didi Leibovitz Azarar, a personal friend of Ramon’s.

Ramon arranged to be cremated after lying in repose, to spare her children the pain of another funeral, she said. Ramon planned many of the details of Wednesday’s ceremonies, including the choice to have her coffin displayed at the Peres Innovation Center.

“Her relationship with my father was very close,” said Chemi Peres, the son of the late president Shimon Peres. Peres noted that his father had signed the space agreement with US president Bill Clinton in the 1990s that paved the way for Ilan Ramon to become the first Israeli astronaut.

Ilan Ramon sent an email to Shimon Peres from space, and in 2009, Shimon Peres awarded Asaf Ramon his wings as a pilot, just a few months before the latter died in a training accident.

Asaf Ramon, left, with Presdient Shimon Peres upon his graduation at Hatzerim air force base in June 2009, several months before he was killed. (photo credit: Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)
Asaf Ramon, right, with President Shimon Peres upon his graduation at Hatzerim air force base in June 2009, several months before he was killed. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

“We lived these tragedies with Rona,” said Chemi Peres. A few months before she died, Rona Ramon donated a small remnant of an Israeli flag that survived the Challenger explosion. “It is amazing that the exact part of the flag that survived is the Star of David,” Peres said. “She gave it to us so that when we open the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in February, everyone will be able to see this part of Israel’s story of innovation.”

The flag sits in an exhibition box behind a video of Ilan Ramon in space, floating weightless, his arms outstretched in an embrace.

The Ramon family said it will observe the traditional shiva mourning period at Peres Center on Thursday, Sunday and Monday from 10 am to 1 p.m. and 5 pm to 7 p.m.

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