Rona Ramon, widow of astronaut killed in Columbia shuttle disaster, dies at 54

Politicians mourn ‘inspirational’ woman, who turned to grief counseling and education when her tragedy was compounded with the death of her son — an IDF pilot — in 2009

Rona Ramon, left, and her daughter Noa, in Cocoa Beach, Florida, on January 15, 2003, a day before the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)
Rona Ramon, left, and her daughter Noa, in Cocoa Beach, Florida, on January 15, 2003, a day before the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, died Monday at the age of 54, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Ramon, a practitioner of holistic medicine, has been a public figure since her husband became Israel’s first person in space, when he blasted off aboard the Columbia in 2003, and then perished when the shuttle broke up upon reentry, weeks later.

As the country’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon — who earlier had been an IDF pilot and participated in the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facility — was a national hero, and Israelis closely followed his accomplishments. Ramon’s image while floating in space, a big smile on his face, was shown repeatedly on TV broadcasts.

Rona Ramon largely stayed out of the public eye for years following her husband’s death, trying to make sense of her loss. But on September 13, 2009, she was forced back into the spotlight by the death of the couple’s oldest son.

Capt. Asaf Ramon, who was 21, was killed when his F-16 warplane crashed during a routine training flight. Inspired by his father, he had excelled in his training and was awarded his pilot’s wings by then-president Shimon Peres. Asaf had expressed hope that he, too, would one day become an astronaut.

Ilan Ramon (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ilan Ramon (Wikimedia Commons)

The pair of tragedies inspired Rona Ramon to earn a masters degree in holistic health from Lesley University in Massachusetts. She established the Ramon Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes personal and social excellence through space, flight, science, and technology. She also gave speeches across Israel and offered grief counseling to others.

“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.”

“Time is tricky. Over time, you lose objectivity,” she said. “Sometimes, it feels like it happened ages ago, and sometimes it feels like it just happened.”

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 then-president Shimon Peres upon his graduation at Hatzerim air force base in June 2009, several months before he was killed (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

In 2016, Ramon was chosen to light one of the torches at the annual state ceremony marking Israel’s 68th Independence Day.

She is survived by three children, Tal, Yiftah and Noa.

The Ramon Foundation said in a statement that Ramon “passed away today peacefully in her home, surrounded by her family and close friends.

“Rona never ceased in her efforts to positively affect Israeli society and to leave a mark upon those around her. She was an inspiring woman, who left us knowing that her legacy and the legacy of her son and husband will live on in the widespread educational work of which she was a part,” the statement said.

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)

Funeral details were to be issued later.

The family requested that the public respect their privacy and refrain from nearing their home.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum issued statements in memory of the “inspirational” Ramon.

Rona Ramon speaking to students at the Open University in Ranaana. January 29, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/ FLASH90)

“My wife, Sara, and I express deep sorrow following the death of Rona Ramon,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “Rona stood bravely after the deaths of her husband Ilan and son Asaf, our adored pilots. She fought cancer with the same bravery.”

“We will never forget how you built from out of the ruins, how you endowed meaning in infinite pain, how your creativity filled the never-ending void,” President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, said in an English-language statement.

Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon (front) waves as he leaves the Operations and Checkout Building with his fellow Columbia space shuttle crew members, Jan. 16, 2003, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

“We will continue to bask in your light… and will look up to the skies to search for you, three bright stars,” they added.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement posted on Twitter: “I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Rona Ramon. @NASA sends our heartfelt condolences to her family and the people of Israel.

“Throughout her life, Rona sought to inspire a new generation of explorers to build on the legacy of her husband, space shuttle astronaut Ilan Ramon.”

Knesset member Avi Gabbay, head of the Zionist Union faction, hailed Ramon as an “inspirational woman with incredible mental fortitude, who, out of her private grief and anguish, chose life and illuminated the path for the young generation in Israel.”

Rona Ramon, left and Yisrael Katz at the ground breaking ceremony for the new Timna International Airport, in the south of Israel. (Yossi Zeliger/ Flash90)

Israel Katz, who interacted with Ramon in developing a new airport near Eilat named for her husband and son in his role as transportation minister, said, “Nobody was ever happier” than she was, upon hearing the news.

“Soon we will dedicate Ramon Airport and Rona will be there [in spirit] together with us and with Ilan and Asaf and friends,” he says.

Former defense minister and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman said that she was “a woman of valor. She leaves a legacy of diverse work educating the next generation on values of excellence and love.”

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett said, “Great sadness is descending upon the Israeli nation” with the news of Ramon’s death. “So much love, Zionism, and devotion came from this woman and this family. Rona will be missed by everyone. Her legacy is optimism and giving.”

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called her “an exceptional personage, who touched us all in the deepest way, during the most difficult times, personally and nationally.”

Science and Space minister Ofir Akunis wrote of the time he approached Ramon to ask permission to name a scholarship after her son Asaf. “The tears in her eyes then are forever attached to my heart.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who was close to Ramon, said, “The leadership program she created, and her impressive works will be with us for many years.”

The Ramon Foundation concluded: “We already miss her warm presence.”

Times of Israel staff, AP and JTA contributed to this report.

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