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Rona Ramon: Widow of Israel’s first astronaut thrust into the limelight by Columbia disaster

After losing Ilan Ramon in 2003 and then her son in a military air accident, she set up a foundation in their honour, inspiring a nation with her fortitude

Christine Manby
Monday 31 December 2018 12:25 GMT
Rona and Ilan with their son Asaf (left) and three younger children in 2002
Rona and Ilan with their son Asaf (left) and three younger children in 2002 (AFP)

Rona Ramon found her purpose in life through tragedy. The Israeli activist and educator, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 54, established the Ramon Foundation, which supports the academic dreams of gifted Israeli children, as a response to unspeakable personal loss.

In 2003, Ramon’s husband, Israel’s first astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon, died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Six years later, the Ramons lost their 21-year-old son, fighter pilot, Asaf.

Rona Ramon was born in Kiryat Ono, in the Tel Aviv district of Israel. Her parents Yaacov and Gila Bar Siman Tov emigrated from Turkey as teenagers. Aged 17 in 1981, Ramon watched in awe as eight fighter planes flew over a beach in Eilat.

In a TEDx talk in 2014, she recalled the last plane, “a little dot that vanished into the horizon” was flown by the man who would be her husband.

Ramon presents photographs of her husband and and Columbia crew members to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem in 2004 (Getty)

She met Ilan Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor, in 1986, when a friend brought him to her 22nd birthday. “I got him as my present,” she said. “A nice handsome young man, 32 at that time.”

Ilan was retraining as an engineer while she, having trained as a paramedic during national service, she a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from the Wingate Institute, which trains Israel’s national sports teams and military.

Once they had both graduated, the Ramons started a family. Asaf, the first of their four children was born in 1988. Shortly after their second child was born, Ilan was invited to become Israel’s first astronaut. Rona and the children followed him to Houston, Texas, for his training.

Aged 48 in 2003, Ilan was the oldest of the seven crew members who lost their lives with the Columbia space shuttle exploded on its return to earth after a two-week mission.

Her life turned upside down, Ramon and the children returned to Israel – the whole country was shellshocked by the disaster and Ilan had become a national hero.

To distract herself from her grief, she studied for a master’s in creative writing. As part of her thesis, she examined the effects of loss.

When Ramon’s eldest son Asaf decided that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps in the military, Ramon was supportive the “boy of 18 who has dreamed of flying all his life”. She watched with pride as he graduated at the top of his class in 2009. Three months later he died when his F-16 crashed in a training accident.

Ramon expressed anger at his superiors, claiming that he had been overworked.

Ilan is made a lieutenant in 1994 by head of Israeli army, Ehud Barak (Getty)

“We saw that he was tired,” she said. “It’s very frustrating, because they’re always talking about ‘the air force family.’ As a family, you need to see the members of your family. He was so exhausted, and he had no one to talk with. It drives me crazy.”

The following year, the Ramon Foundation was set up, inspired by a note Rona found Asaf had written: “My siblings and I were brought up to aspire to realisation of our dreams, based on our parents’ belief that everyone should discover his own calling.”

Reading her son’s words, Ramon decided that she wanted to bring the opportunities she had given Asaf to as many young people as possible.

“The suffering was great, and dealing with it was unbearable,” she said. “Nevertheless, I knew I had people to live for, that was clear and convincing: I would keep going for my children, at the most simple and practical level. I would function. If I managed to make lunch for everyone, if I managed to pick everyone up on time from after-school activities and sports fields and not forget anyone – because that, too, has happened – then I was okay.”

Rona with her husband IlanRamon in Clear Lake City, Texas, shortly before his ill-fated mission (Getty)

The Ramon Foundation exists to promote education and leadership to youth around Israel. It provides scholarships for gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Foundation also supports The Ramon Spacelab, through which students submit experiments to the International Space Station.
In addition to the Foundation, Ramon helped to create Israeli Space Week, promoting Stem education with space-related events. She was also active in the Annual International Ilan Ramon Conference, which draws astronauts and Space Agency representatives from all over the world.

Through her work, Ramon became something of a national treasure. She held the torch 2016 anniversary of the day the State of Israel was declared.

Ramon is survived by her sons Tal and Yiftah, her daughter Noa, and her parents.

She once said: “It’s true the hand of fate has struck me, and how it has struck me. But I have the privilege of choosing how I get up and rise above the great crises that life had in store for me, and I decide which music I choose to hear.”

Rona Ramon, Israeli activist and educator, born 16 April 1964, died 17 December 2018

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