“Ilan and Asaf touched the stars; Rona touched our hearts,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin when the tragic death of Rona Ramon at the age of 54 from pancreatic cancer was announced on Monday. Rona was the widow of Israel Air Force (IAF) Colonel Ilan Raman, who as part of the ill-fated Columbia Shuttle mission to space in 2003 died with six other astronauts when it exploded on re-entry.
“We will never forget how you built from out of the ruins, how you endowed meaning in infinite pain, how your creativity filled the never-ending void,” said Rivlin.
Six years later, her 21-year-old son, Asaf Ramon, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became an IAF fighter pilot, was killed in a training accident. She could have refused, as a bereaved wife, to agree to his serving in a dangerous capacity in the military, but she agreed to sign so Asaf could realize his dream of being a pilot. Rona’s brother had died of cancer soon before that catastrophe.
Asaf was buried at Moshav Nahalal, next to the grave of Ilan and in the grave she had meant for herself. “My dear, this is my grave, and my place. You were supposed to bury me at an old age, with a million grandchildren. I’m so angry. They promised me that they would protect Ilan, they promised me that they would protect you,” Rona said at the funeral. “Asaf, my dear, I know that dad is watching over you now, loving you, embracing you. For me you are the king of the world.”
But although her life from the age of 39 when her husband was killed put her in the role of Job, Rona never despaired or gave up on life. She was always optimistic, turning her personal tragedies into an impetus for improving the lives of others, dedicating her energy into projects with a long-lasting impact. Overcoming her grief, she chose to help others, go give the best of herself and to become a heroine against her will.
She established the Ilan and Asaf Ramon Foundation, which stands for academic excellence and social leadership by initiating advanced educational programs in the fields of science, aviation and space – to inspire a new generation of young Israelis. The foundation built an impressive network of educators from the Upper Galilee to the southern Negev. Three educational programs sponsored by the foundation are run in dozens of municipalities and local authorities to advance leadership in young people in education, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The Ramon Spacelab program enables students to send scientific experiments to the International Space Station. Rona gave numerous speeches around the country about space and science, while also providing grief counselling to people who have lost loved ones. She earned a master’s degree in holistic medicine from Lesley College. She was overjoyed to be chosen to light a beacon at the memorable opening ceremony of Israel’s 68th Independence Day celebration in 2016.
Despite her illness, she attended the dedication of the Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport located in the Timna Valley 10 kilometers north of Israel’s southernmost city of Eilat to replace the outdated Eilat city airport. The new facility in memory of her husband and son is suitable to the landing of large jets and expected to be used by 2 million passengers annually.
When she learned that she had contracted incurable cancer, she said to her three remaining children Yiftah, Tal and Noa (now all in their early 20s): “With two of us in heaven, we were in the majority. But now, we are not.” Yet she didn’t want the public to know about his terminal illness so they would not feel sorry for her. The announcement of her passing induced grief and tears among Israelis of all backgrounds, even if they had never met her personally.
She is also survived by her two parents, who were former immigrants born in Turkey.
Rona, born in the city of Kiryat Ono in 1964, served as a medic in the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade. She met Ilan at a birthday party and married him six months later. She went on to study physical education at the Wingate Institute near Netanya and worked as a sports teacher.
After Yiftah was born, the Ramons moved to a succession of military bases. As a pilot, Ilan participated in the destruction in 1981 of the nuclear reactor in Iraq, which endangered Israel. He had wanted to be an astronaut since he heard a speech by US astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon in 1969. Twenty years ago, Ilan was chosen by the IAF to train for the Columbia Space Shuttle Mission, and the family moved to Houston, Texas for years of training. Ilan conducted numerous scientific experiments on board, to which he brought a copy of child Holocaust victim Petr Ginz’s “Moon Landscape”; a miniature Torah scroll given to him by Prof. Yehoyachin Yosef, a Holocaust survivor of Bergen-Belsen; and a barbed wire mezuza designed by Aimee Golant.
After the shuttle catastrophe, the family were hugged by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which kept in constant touch and sent a representative to Israel every year for a space conference run by the Ramon Foundation. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine mourned Rona’s death: I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Rona Ramon. NASA sends our heartfelt condolences to her family and the people of Israel. Throughout her life, Rona sought to inspire a new generation of explorers to build on the legacy of her husband, space shuttle astronaut Ilan Ramon.”
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba had planned to give Rona Ramon an honorary doctorate on December 30, but she didn’t live long enough to attend the ceremony. BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi mourned her in a statement: “Rona was a unique, inspiring woman whose warmth and deep inner strength allowed her to overcome her personal grief in order to promote Israel’s involvement in space exploration. After losing her husband, astronaut Ilan Ramon, and her son, IDF fighter pilot Asaf Ramon, Rona capitalized on her own prodigious talents and energies for the betterment of Israeli society. She created the Ramon Foundation, dedicated to nurturing excellence, social leadership and values among the next generation and expanding the horizons of hundreds of thousands of children every year. Rona’s passion for science, for space exploration, for children and for Israel will live on, and will continue to inspire and challenge us well into the future. Deepest condolences to Tal,Yiftah and Noa. May Rona’s memory be a
Miriam Peretz, an Israeli woman who lost two sons – Uriel (in combat in Lebanon at the age of 22) and Eliraz (in the Gaza Strip at age 31) – and has devoted her life to educational activity, said: “Now Rona’s voice has been silenced. But her spirit, her mother’s spirit, her adherence to life, love and giving endlessly remains with us. We will continue this spirit, Rona, for Ilan, for Asaf, for you and now for us.”