As Americans mourn the loss of the Columbia space shuttle today, two other nations – Israel and India – are also in shock as a day of anticipated national celebration turned to sadness and grief.
One of the seven astronauts aboard the craft that took off Jan. 16 was Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, part of Columbia’s science mission.
In a press statement early on, newly re-elected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said: “The government and people of Israel are praying together with the peoples of the world for the safety of the astronauts on the shuttle Columbia.”
With confirmation, in the words of one senior U.S. official, that the shuttle Columbia was “gone,” concern gave way to mourning.
“It is very sad. I am in shock,” said Hezi Yitzhaki in a Reuters report. “It was a celebration for the country and it is ending so tragically. An entire country was so proud of him. We are already in such a bad state.”
The 48-year-old Ramon, son of a Holocaust survivor, had served as a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force, first as a cadet during the 1973 Middle East war, according to a Reuters report.
As a fighter pilot, Ramon also participated in the preemptive bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
In India, today’s newspapers featured stories and photos of Kalpana Chawla, anticipating the triumphant return of India’s first woman in space.
“What can anyone say except that we are aghast at the terrible tragedy,” said V. Sundararamaiah, scientific secretary of the Indian Space Research Organization, in an Associated Press report.
India has launched many satellites over the years and is preparing for a moon orbit this decade.
A national heroine, Chawla had a previous space flight to her credit, in late 1997. At the time, she had told News India-Times of seeing India’s Himalayan Mountains and mighty rivers from space, said the AP report.”The Ganges Valley looked majestic, mind boggling,” she said. “Africa looked like a desert and the Nile a vein in it.”
The presence of an Israeli war hero on board prompted concerns that the Columbia would be an attractive terror target, and security at both take-off and at the anticipated landing had been increased.