The people of the United States and Israel bowed their collective heads in mourning following Saturday’s disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle which killed the first Israeli astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon, and his six American colleagues.

Along with Ramon, the shuttle – which was on its 28th mission – carried commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and payload commander Mike Anderson.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday said that the deaths of the seven astronauts were not in vain and that there would be other Israeli astronauts in the future.

“The seven astronauts who perished yesterday in the space shuttle Columbia disaster are part of the heavy price that the human race must pay in its quest for knowledge and in its desire to explore other worlds. Their deaths will not be in vain. Mankind’s journey into space will continue. U.S.-Israeli cooperation in this endeavor will continue as well. The day will come when other Israeli astronauts will be launched into space. I am certain that the memory of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first space pioneer, will be etched in our hearts.” Sharon said at the beginning of the Israeli governmen’ts weekly cabinet meeting.

“All Israelis bow their heads in memory of Col. Ilan Ramon and the crew of the shuttle Columbia, heroes of our journey into space,” Sharon said demonstrating the commonality and shared values of the sanctity of life of the two nations in mourning

Israeli and American flags were lowered to half mast Sunday as a sign of mourning for the seven astronauts.

Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut killed during the failed re-entry of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Photo courtesy NASA

American Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, who was invited to attend the cabinet meeting, said that the U.S. and Israel “shared their triumphs and shared their misfortune.”

“Seventeen days ago, Americans and Israelis turned their eyes towards the heavens with pride and anticipation as the Columbia space shuttle lifted upward carrying seven brave astronauts. Our two nations shared joy and admiration for the heroism and bravery of the crew. We shared hopes and dreams of the advances that this mission promised for the betterment of humankind. Today Americans and Israelis come together again to mourn those seven astronauts,” said Kurtzer.

“In paying tribute to these heroes, our two nations can draw on deep reservoirs of courage, character and fortitude. As we share triumphs, we also share misfortune. But even during this period of mourning and reflection our gaze is drawn inexorably towards the same aspirations that drew Ilan Ramon and his colleagues into space. Just last week, Col. Ramon said from space, ‘The world looks marvelous from up here – so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile.’ His words evoked thoughts of an American poet, who said after an earlier Apollo flight ‘to see the earth as we see it now – small and beautiful and blue in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together; brothers on that bright loveliness in the unending night; brothers who see now that they are truly brothers.'”

“Americans and Israelis are brothers indeed – on earth and in space,” Kurtzer concluded.

US President George W. Bush telephoned Sharon on Saturday night and told him that shuttle disaster was a tragic day for both the families of the astronauts and for science.

Bush told Sharon that he knew that a a brave Israeli citizen – Ramon – was on board the space shuttle Columbia, and delivered the condolences and support of the entire American people, as well as his personal condolences and support, to the Ramon family.

Sharon delivered his sincerest condolences to the American people and the astronauts’ families, and added that is at moments such as these, that the hearts of the American and Israeli peoples beat as one. “Let us pray together and support each other,” he said according to a statement that was released.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has offered to assist the U.S. investigation into the Columbia spacecraft disaster. Mofaz spoke at Ben-Gurion International Airport while seeing off six members of Ramon’s family, who flew on a government-arranged charter jet to reunite with Ramon’s widow, Rona, and four children in the U.S. He said the US space program would continue, and Israel would be happy to continue to cooperate with the program.

Mofaz added that if asked, Israel would help the US probe of the disaster, although he can rely on the American space authorities to carry out the investigation.

Throughout the U.S., synagogues and churches held special services for the victims of the shuttle crash. Rabbi Arthur Ruberg of Congregation Beth El in Hampton Roads, Virginia said the tragedy is just another link that Americans share with Israelis.

“We have been allies,” Ruberg said. “We rejoice together and now we mourn together.”

The crew, which was returning from its 16-day mission, had completed all of their 80-plus experiments in orbit. They studied ant, bee and spider behavior in weightlessness as well as changes in flames and flower scents, and took measurements of atmospheric dust with a pair of Israeli cameras.

An Israel Air Force officer, staying at the NASA center in Washington, told Israel Radio on Saturday that the experiment conducted on dust clouds over the Middle East were very successful, and that Ramon and his colleagues managed to photograph dust storms over the Atlantic Ocean.

The fact that the space shuttle included an Israeli in such a vital position further demonstrated the values shared between the U.S. and Israel in exploration for the good of the world.

Ramon, 48, was an air force colonel and the son of a Holocaust survivor. His military career included the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. He became a national hero overnight when Israel television carried live broadcasts of the liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Ramon “is fulfilling everyone’s dream, to be the first Israeli in space,” Israel’s Channel Two commentator said just before Ramon and his six American crewmates lifted off.

The station was broadcasting the planned landing when the Columbia lost communication with ground controllers Saturday. Ramon’s 79-year-old father was at the Channel Two studios in Jerusalem at the time, and was to be interviewed. But after the apparent disintegration of the shuttle, the station said he would not be available for comment.

Ramon’s wife Rona and their four children have been living in Texas for the past several years as he prepared for the flight. They were at Cape Canaveral for the liftoff and were also there Saturday for the planned landing.

“As a matter of course, the consulate here has been in contact with the family,” Dana Kursch, of the Israeli consulate in Houston, told Israel Radio.

Ramon first began his preparations in 1997, and was a payload specialist. He spent much of Columbia’s 16-day flight aiming cameras in an Israel Space Agency study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth’s atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.

Ramon was not particularly religious, but decided to eat kosher food in orbit – the first time it was ever placed on a space mission.

“I’m secular in my background, but I’m going to respect all kinds of Jews all over the world,” Ramon said. “For Israel and for the Jewish community, it’s a very symbolic event.”

Ramon has logged thousands of hours of flight time and was part of the first Israeli squad to pilot American-made F-16 fighter jets in 1980. He fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and in the 1982 war in Lebanon.

Ramon was one of the fighter pilots who destroyed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, a senior Israeli government official said last month, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The attack, in which eight F-16 warplanes obliterated the French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad, was a milestone for Israeli aviation because the planes flew over enemy Arab territory for hours without detection. The pilots flew in a tight formation to send off a radar signal resembling that of a large commercial airliner.

Ramon, whose mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp, honored those who endured the Holocaust. He carried a small pencil drawing titled “Moon Landscape” by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz.

He also packed a credit-card sized microfiche of the Bible given him by Israeli President Moshe Katsav and some mezuzas – small cases that are hung on door frames of Jewish homes and contain inscriptions from the Bible.

Ramon’s father gave him family photos to take into space and a brother had a letter stowed away in the shuttle that Ramon read in orbit.

(News agencies contributed to this report.)