Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who transformed her loss to become a leading advocate for Israeli youth, was on Tuesday posthumously awarded this year’s Israel Prize for lifetime achievement.
Ramon, who died in December at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer, became a public figure after her husband, Israel’s first person in space, perished when the Columbia space shuttle broke up on reentry in 2003.
She largely stayed out of the public eye following her husband’s death, But in 2009, she was forced back into the spotlight by the death of the couple’s oldest son, Capt. Asaf Ramon, 21, who was killed when his F-16 warplane crashed during a routine training flight.
“Rona Ramon is an Israeli hero full of giving and light,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said, announcing the award. “Despite losing two of those dearest to her, Rona chose life and devoted her life to working for society.”
Ramon founded and lead the Ramon Foundation, a nonprofit that promoted academic and social leadership among Israeli youth with a focus on space, flight, science, and technology. Ramon also traveled Israel giving speeches and working as a grief counselor.
“Rona, Ilan and Asaf will be remembered by the nation as three beloved heroes who gave the State of Israel everything they had to give,” Bennett said.
Ramon’s three surviving children, Tal, Yiftah and Noa, met with Bennett who informed them of his decision. They will receive the prize on her behalf on Israel’s Independence Day.
“Our mother was a brave civic leader who loved Israel and who dedicated her life to the younger generation,” her family said in a statement.
“Our mother took a hard life and turned it into an purposeful one, where she gave so much to other people,” they said. “She inspired tens of thousands of young people and engineers to be better and have the strength to follow their dreams.”
Ramon was born in 1964 in Kiryat Ono. She and Ilan married in 1986 after meeting at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They had four children. In 1998, the family moved to Houston so Ilan could prepare for his space mission.
Following her husband and son’s deaths, Ramon earned a masters degree in holistic health from Lesley University in Massachusetts.
“The decision to go study emerged from the crisis I went through,” she told The Associated Press in 2013. “Only by directly facing it could I cope.”
Ramon chose to be cremated, a rare occurrence in Israel where burial is conducted according to religious rites, in order to spare her children having to bury another family member.