Col. Ilan Ramon will be Israel’s first astronaut when he launches with the Columbia space shuttle in July.American intelligence sources are concerned that the July 19 launch of the Columbia space shuttle will be a prime target for terrorists, especially due to the fact that its crew will include Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

According to an ABC News report on Tuesday, no specific threat has been received, but National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials fear that terrorists may attempt to use a small plane to crash into the shuttle as it prepares for launch.

“The fact that an Israeli astronaut will be aboard an American shuttle is likely to turn the launch into an attractive target for terror organizations who won’t be able to resist the temptation,” U.S. intelligence sources said.

According to ABC News, suspicious activity had been observed around the shuttle launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA officials have asked for increased security in the surrounding area, which has been guarded during previous shuttle launches with warships, warplanes and AWAC surveillance planes. Army security sources claim: “It’s hard to imagine more security in this area.”

NASA has increased security on all space flights since the September 11th attacks, keeping launch times secret, deemed for “official use only.” But attempts to keep the time of the Columbia’s launch secret failed when one of the agency’s contractors disclosed the information on the Internet last week.

First Israeli astronaut

Ramon, an Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilot with an impressive combat and flight record, was selected to serve as Israel’s first astronaut in the space shuttle program, culminating almost twenty years of cooperation between the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and NASA.

In April 1998, Colonel Ilan Ramon, 47, and his Israeli back-up Lt. Col. Yitzhak May, were flown to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for physical and psychological testing. The Israeli astronauts and a proposed Israeli space experiment were approved, and training for the NASA mission began.

Ramon was selected as a Payload Specialist, and was chosen to train for a shuttle mission with a payload that includes a multi-spectral camera for recording desert aerosol. Ramon’s project, called MEIDEX (Mediterranean – Israel Dust Experiment), will involve observing and photographing atmospheric aerosols in the Mediterranean area using ultraviolet, visible and near infrared array-detector cameras. The cameras will take calibrated images, which will provide scientific information about the influences of global changes on the climate and ozone.

Ramon served as head of the IAF’s Department of Operational Requirement for Weapons Development and Acquisition, fought in the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, and accumulated over 3,000 flight hours on the A-4, Mirage III C, and F-4 jets, and over 1,000 flight hours on the F-16 fighter plane.

“We train and observe as much as we can, just to study and to learn,” Ramon told the Canadian Jews News in a recent interview, speaking of his NASA experience. “We’re interested in all aspects of the space program.” While impressed with the level of professionalism and talent of NASA staff, Ramon added, “The IAF has nothing to be ashamed of. Our people are at the same level as the astronauts.”

Administered by the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, the ISA develops Israeli space policy, coordinates the national space program, supports applied and theoretical studies, and helps with marketing and development of space-related products.

When NASA administrator Daniel Goldin visited Israel last August, he noted that despite its small size, the ISA promotes “some really world class research.” Goldin said that Israel would soon join the “exclusive club of nations participating in the construction and operation of the first international space station.”