Tragedy and Space: US Astronaut Garrett Reisman Visits Limmud FSU in Beersheba

by Nathan Roi

At Limmud FSU Beersheba, American-Jewish astronaut Dr Garrett Reisman, wiping away a tear, told the audience about his close friend, Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, who was killed together with the other crew members in the mid-air explosion on re-entry into the atmosphere of the space shuttle “Columbia” on February 1, 2003, as well as the death of Capt. Asaf Ramon, 21, who died on September 13, 2009, during a routine training flight while piloting his F-16A, three months after graduating from the Israel Air Force flight school.

Reisman, wearing a NASA flak-jacket, was speaking during the showing of a video presentation on the life of Ilan and Asaf Ramon. “Ilan arrived at NASA and someone told us he was Israel’s first astronaut. The meeting was extremely interesting and we got to know each other well. Our families got together and I met Rona [Ilan’s wife] and their children – Asaf was the oldest.” Reisman spoke to the audience in Russian, which he learned when working with the Russian cosmonauts although he said, “It has become rusty and it is particularly difficult to speak about such a sensitive subject”.

Before the Columbia flight, in accordance with standard NASA procedures, Ilan arranged that in case of an accident, another astronaut would take care of the family. Reisman continued, “I undertook to help Asaf if such circumstances would arise, and we became very close. After the tragedy, Asaf told me that his ambition was to become a pilot in the footsteps of his father. I decided that I would train him on my private Cessna. As it turned out he was perhaps the best pilot I ever trained. When he joined the Israel Air Force, he was immediately accepted for the pilot’s course, and I know that the Israeli course is more difficult than that of the USA. I was very proud of him when he graduated with distinction. The Air Force commanders were reluctant to grant him the award because of the fear of being accused of nepotism, but all the other graduates said that there was no question that Asaf should get it.”

Reisman came to Israel specially to participate in Asaf’s pilot graduation ceremony. He carries two photographs with him: one of them is of Asaf and him together at the graduation ceremony, and the other shows the two of them standing by the Cessna. He took this photograph with him on a space flight and shows it superimposed against the image of Israel as seen from space. As he told the story to the enthralled audience, Reisman found it difficult to control his emotion, whispering “sorry” in Russian.

In addition to participating in Limmud FSU Beersheba, Dr. Reisman was also visiting the various projects devoted to the memory of Ilan and Asaf.

photo courtesy Nathan Roi