The Coumbia crew poses before their launch last year. Ilan Ramon is on the far right.A year after the Columbia shuttle disaster which killed all seven crew members including Israeli Ilan Ramon, the connection between the U.S. and Israel’s space programs remains strong. In addition the families of the six American astronauts killed are reportedly planning to visit Israel at the invitation of Ramon’s widow Rona Ramon.

Evelyn Husband, whose spouse, Rick Husband, was the commander of the mission, said the visit is supposed to take place in March and last for a week. “I am very close to Rona and love her with all my heart,” she told the Israeli internet news site Ynet. “Despite our differences – she is Jewish and I am Christian – we have prayed together many times before.” Husband said the date of the visit has not yet been set and did not say who would visit and the itinerary.

Israeli Science Minister Eliezer Sandberg is in Washington this week to attend the official U.S. memoral service at Arlington National Ceremony. Sandberg and Israel Ambassador to the US Daniel Ayalon are to meet with NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe to discuss future cooperation with NASA.

“Israel’s contribution to the study of outer space, as one of America’s partners in manned space flights.” Ayalon said last week. “There is a good chance that another Israeli astronaut will fly in space in a space shuttle, or other spacecraft. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that an Israeli astronaut will land on the moon, as part of US efforts to establish a permanent base there.”

Both the American families in the U.S. and the Ramon family in Israel on Sunday marked the one-year memorial of the shuttle’s disintegration as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day scientific flight. The tragedy has been blamed on a piece of foam insulation that tore a hole in Columbia’s left wing during liftoff on Jan. 16, 2003, and allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter during re-entry.

In Israel, a memorial service was held for Ramon, the first Israeli in space, at the Nahalal Cemetery attended by family members and friends. Rona Ramon, her four children, and Ilan’s father, Eliezer Wolferman, gathered around his grave for the service, during which friends and relatives placed white cyclamens and carnations on the limestone tombstone.

“Living a year without our beloved Ilan is almost a mission impossible,” said Rona at the ceremony. At the end of her talk, Rona quoted from words her husband wrote in a recently discovered diary from space. “Far away, but close, close in the heart,” Rona said.

“You left us a legacy, to take care of earth and to take care of our small country,” eulogized Wolferman.

Last month, sections of Ramon’s personal diary – handwritten in Hebrew – during his last days on the ill-fated space shuttle were recovered in Texas by a Native American tracker. The pieces of paper had somehow survived 1,800-degree heat during the explosion that occurred some 60 kilometers above the earth. NASA sent the pages to Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow, who was still in Houston. She immediately identified it as her husband’s writing.

Last week Israel’s Channel Two television broadcast a film portraying the emotional story of Ramon’s launch into space, the day-to-day operations of the space shuttle mission, his connections with his family, and his observations as written in the diary. In his notes, Ramon expressed his excitement and feeling of good fortune to be aboard the spacecraft and to enjoy views of the Earth and the “thin layer of atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, at the Kennedy Space Center in Houston, the families of the six American astronauts, along with NASA workers who launched Columbia into orbit, volunteers who rummaged the fields for the shuttle’s remains, and everyday supporters of the space program united on the first anniversary of the catastrophe to mourn and to remember.

“One year ago, at this very hour, the unthinkable occurred,” the director of Kennedy Space Center, Jim Kennedy, told the crowd of a few hundred who gathered on a gray, drizzly morning. Kennedy quietly cited the names of the seven Columbia astronauts, carved into the black granite memorial behind him. Besides Rick Husband, astronauts Michael Anderson, William C. McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Ramon, and David Brown died in the tragedy.