President Reuven and Nechama Rivlin on Sunday hosted family members of the seven astronauts who died in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle crash, one of whom was Israel’s first astronaut, mission specialist Ilan Ramon.
The next of kin to the other six astronauts were invited to Israel by Ramon’s widow, Rona, who wanted them to participate in Israeli Space Week and for the first time to be at Ilan Ramon’s annual memorial ceremony, Rivlin’s office said in a statement. However, Rona Ramon died last month, before the visitors arrived in Israel.
Ilan and Rona Ramon’s children Tal, Yiftach and Noa met with Rivlin privately before the visiting US families arrived at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, where the reunion was held.
“Every Israeli knows where they were 16 years ago when they heard the terrible news,” Rivlin told the families. “The stories of the brave astronauts on the space shuttle have become part of the story of the State of Israel.
“When we think of the seven crew members of the Columbia, we feel deep grief, but also boundless pride,” he said. “They flew to the heavens to push the boundaries of human knowledge.
“Only a month ago, we said goodbye to Rona Ramon,” Rivlin continued. “Rona honored the memory of her husband and her son through the Ramon Foundation, which gives young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to make their dreams come true.”
“This house is your home, and I hope that every time you visit, you will feel like you have come home,” Rivlin said.
Evelyn Husband-Thompson, wife of Columbia mission commander Rick Husband, thanked the president on behalf of all the families.
“It is difficult and emotional, but we also look forward to the future,” she said. “On behalf of all the families, we are so happy to be here.”
“It means so much to us that you are here, and we are so happy to see you again,” Tal Ramon said. “We’ll save the hugs for later.”
Israeli Space Week runs from January 27 to 31 and was an initiative of Rona Ramon. The event is to include conferences for researchers and educational programs for an expected over 100,000 children, the statement said.
Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first and only astronaut, was killed in the February 1, 2003, Columbia space shuttle disaster. Six years after the Columbia crash, the couple’s 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 field of healing after tragedy. Rona Ramon, 54, died on December 17, after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was survived by three children, Tal, Yiftah and Noa, and her parents.
Last week Israel inaugurated the Ilan & Asaf Ramon Airport named for the astronaut and for his F-16 pilot son.
The facility is the first airport built from scratch in Israel since the foundation of the state and is due to welcome scheduled international flights in March. Initially Ramon Airport will handle only domestic flights, operated by Israeli carriers Arkia and Israir.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.