Israeli President Moshe Katsav shakes hands with Matthew Husband, son of the late American astronaut Rick D. Husband, as Matthew’s mother Evelyn Husband, right, and his sister Lora, middle, look on. (AP)The astronauts aboard the Columbia space shuttle were familiar with Israel. After all, their comrade, Col. Ilan Ramon was Israeli and he regularly briefed his fellow astronauts on his native land before and during their ill-fated mission. And both Ramon and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made it clear that the crew would all be welcomed in Israel after the mission.

But sadly, it was left to the families of the astronauts – who died when Columbia broke up during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. – to make that journey a year later, in place of their loved ones.

Last week, the families of commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool and crew members Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark spent an emotional few days in Israel as guests of the Ramon’s widow Rona, and the Israeli government. Accompanying the families was NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson, who is scheduled to fly when shuttle flights resume.

“I feel tremendous happiness to have my family, the Columbia family, over here,” said Rona Ramon as the delegation arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. “It’s really a special moment for me. The plan for a visit in Israel started a few years ago when Ilan was first (selected to fly on the shuttle). He said that he wanted to organize a trip for his crewmates to visit Israel so that they would see what it is really like and not just the way it is shown in the media. This has been a year of ups and downs. This is one of the peaks.”

Their arms wrapped around each other, Ramon and Evelyn Husband spoke of how close they had grown after tragedy linked.

“We have bonded so quickly,” Husband said. “That’s why there was never any consideration to come here. For me it is an honor and privilege to be here. My entire life, I have wanted to visit Israel. Rick sent me an e-mail from space and told me that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had invited them to Israel. I am very glad that my children and I have been able to come, despite everything. We are all one family, especially the children. Rona is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Her entire family is. Ilan was the same way as well.”

Husband said that both she and Rick had always wanted to come to Israel. When he was first assigned to the mission, he told her, “we are probably going to get to Israel,” Husband recalled.

Sharon had invited the crew to visit Israel during a telephone conversation between earth and the shuttle that was broadcast live in Israel and the United States. And last week, he took great pleasure in welcoming the families to his office in Jerusalem.

“I wish that your loved ones were here with us,” said Sharon. “Now you are helping me fulfill my pledge.”

The visit, he said, “represents an achievement of the promise I made to this group, to the Columbia when I spoke to Col. Ramon and Cmdr. Husband in the air and invited them all to be our guests,” said Sharon.

Sharon said that in spite of the crew’s deaths, “their spirit, their hopes and values and dreams for a better future will forever be in our hearts.” He added, “our joint efforts in space will continue.”

Rona Ramon gave Sharon a silver ornament of the shuttle with an Israeli and American flag on it, hanging off a blue glass stand, including the signatures of all the astronauts.

Ramon, 48, a father of four, captured the hearts of ordinary Israelis with his unassuming manner, deep Jewish commitment and boyish good looks. Before the flight, he spoke of his eagerness to represent “the people of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Ramon also spoke of his desire for peace. Flying over the Middle East, he said, “There’s no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying to space. It goes the same for any country, Arab country, whatever – we are all the same people, we are all human beings and I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people.”

Speaking to reporters last week, Science Minister Eliezer Sandberg told of the special connection between Israel, these families and NASA. He said NASA Chief of Staff John D. Schumacher will visit Israel in the coming months as part of improved cooperation between the Israeli and American space agencies, and added that there will also be a symposium on the scientific experiments aboard the shuttle, that will include a delegation from NASA.

Current NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson was hopeful that the cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli space programs would continue.

“I certainly hope Israel has a role to play in future space missions, but that’s up for the politicians to decide. The desire is there on both sides,” he told ISRAEL21c. “The Israeli people have always been travelers – the story of Israel started out with a long journey in the desert. And the ultimate journey today is into space. So there’s something appropriate about Israel being involved.”

And to help the next generation of Israeli star climbers get their start, S.T.A.R.S. (Space Technology and Astrophysics Research for Students), an innovative science education program, at the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology & Space – Haifa, named after Ramon, was officially launched at the Residence of the President Moshe Katsav in the presence of the families.

“The S.T.A.R.S. Program will allow all of Israel’s children to explore and research the universe, and reach out to the stars,” explained Rona Ramon, who is actively promoting the enterprise. “Support for the S.T.A.R.S. Program will perpetuate Ilan’s legacy for a better future in Israel and worldwide.”

Among the other highlights of the week for the families was a visit to the Ramat David Air Force base in the north where Ilan Ramon trained. The families met Ramat David’s commander and saw a short film about the Israeli bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 in which Ramon participated. They later visited his grave at Kibbutz Nahalal in northern Israel.

Doug Brown, brother of crew member David Brown, said he felt honored to be at the base where Ramon served. “Ilan and Dave were such good friends,” he said. “It’s very moving to be here.”

“I am totally fascinated and I am so excited for my children,” said Husband. “It is so important that they see something about the country where Ilan was from.”

Rounding out the week, which also included tourist attractions throughout the country, the families planted trees in memory of their lost family members at the JNF-KKL’s American Independence Park in Ness Harim. Apart from the United States, Israel is the only country to plant trees in memory of the fallen astronauts.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev also honored Ramon with a Lifetime Achievement Award. University President Prof. Avishay Braverman bestowed the award to Rona Ramon in a special ceremony held at the university.

The Houston Chronicle reported that for the children of the astronauts, the trip provided some unforgettable experiences. For Laurel Clark’s 9-year-old son, Iain, there was the chance to sit in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet at Ramon’s air force base. Rick Husband’s son, Matthew, 8, loved watering the newly planted almond, pistachio, carob and olive trees and clambering over the ruins of ancient fortresses, while his sister, Laura, 13, helped her mother find the passages in the Bible that described the places they had seen. Michael Anderson’s daughters – Sydney, 12 and Kaycee, 10 – couldn’t decide between the horseback riding, visiting Christian holy sites or floating in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

Robinson accompanied Science Minister Sandberg to a high school in the port city of Acre to participate in the launch of a new project sponsored by the Ministry and the ORT network of high schools called “For The Science – For the Children”

“I got a chance to speak to the kids in an informal setting outside. The kids just gathered around, and asked questions that displayed their natural inquisitiveness and intelligence. I was pleasantly touched by their enthusiasm and their great sense of humor, that’s a combination I’ve seen everywhere in Israel. It gives me great hope for a positive future here,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Reflecting on the action-packed week he had just experienced, Robinson’s thoughts returned back to Ilan Ramon.

“I’ve been surprised at the beauty of the country. Until now, I’ve only seen Israel from space – many times from orbit. But down here, it’s exactly as Ilan described it – and more. And when you meet the people, you realize it’s a magical place. I’m in no hurry to go home.”