Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert receives a picture collage in Jerusalem from NASA astronaut Eileen Collins. (GPO)It was a meeting of the minds this week in Israel. Three US National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts talked shop with high-achieving students at the Jerusalem Science and the Arts High School.

Retired US Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, who was commander of the recent STS-114 Discovery shuttle, and mission specialists Dr. Stephen Robinson and Dr. Andrew Thomas were guests in the country at the invitation of Rona Ramon, widow of Israel’s first astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, who died along with six NASA astronauts in the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle crash on February 1, 2003.

The three Americans arrived in Israel to attend a Herzliya conference that will mark the third anniversary of Ramon’s death and to name seven hills in the Ramon Crater near Mitzpe Ramon in memory of the fallen astronauts – Ramon, Rick Husband, William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark and David Brown.

When Collins was asked by pupils of the high school – Jewish and Arab, secular and religious – whether it was hard to be a female space shuttle commander, the wife and mother said that during work she did not think about being a woman.

“Everybody’s mind is on ensuring that the mission succeeds,” she said. But as a US Air Force test pilot, she was one of 20 women in a sea of 18,000 men, and “everybody knew what and how well we were doing, as if we were in a fishbowl.”

Later, visting President Moshe Katsav at Beit Hanassi at the President’s Forum on Science and Technology, Collins said it had always been a dream of hers to visit Israel. Thanks to Rona Ramon and the Ministry for Science and Technology, she said, that dream had been realized.

Collins related how when orbiting in space, she had gazed down at the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea and had reflected on the history of Israel and how much she wanted to visit the country.

Referring to the naming of the seven hills in the Ramon crater, Collins said that she misses the Columbia crew very much and thinks of them “literally every day.” She expressed the hope that the dedication would bring the Discovery crew closer to the Columbia crew and to the accomplishment of their mission to improve life on earth.

Acting Prime Minister Olmert met with the delegation and told them, “The memory of Ilan Ramon is in every Israeli’s heart. He was a source of pride to Israel. The entire country followed the preparations and I remember well the excitement we all felt when Ilan talked about Jerusalem while in space.”

Prof. Mina Teicher, director-general of the Science Ministry, said that for Israelis the memory of Ramon symbolizes scientific excellence, courage, love of human nature and nature itself and the struggle for the highest achievements.

Space research in Israel is strong, said Teicher, specifically citing the new Venus project, a French-Israeli satellite program that is being jointly manufactured and will be jointly used for scientific goals. Venus is designated for launch in 2008.

Teicher was optimistic that the day would not be long in coming when Israel would have another astronaut in space.

Rona Ramon listed some of the existing monuments to the Columbia crew, and noted that they had successfully carried out their mission in space. The crew members were people of different nationalities and religions, she said, but they had learned to respect and love each other and live together as family. “They represented humanity as a whole,” said Ramon.

Yuval Peled, head of the planning and development division of the Nature Authority, said the Ramon crater and its seven hills reflect the bond of the spirit of Man with the spirit of the Earth, and symbolize the efforts of Ramon and his crew.

Katsav said he looked forward to the day when technology and science would be used solely to solve regular problems, such as health and poverty, and would no longer have to be used in the fight against terrorism.

The government has established a scholarship fund in the name of Ramon, which will be awarded to outstanding students in various disciplines who have also shown community involvement.
“I think educational scholarships are a suitable way to memorialize Ilan,” Rona Ramon said, “so that messages of tolerance, love of family, the land and humanity can materialize.”

(Based on a report in The Jerusalem Post)