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Space Shuttle Columbia

Israel receives astronaut's remains

Rona Ramon (right) and Assaf Ramon, Ramon's widow and eldest son, beside his coffin

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TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- The remains of Israel's first astronaut have been returned home.

A sombre ceremony marked the arrival of the flag-draped coffin of Ilan Ramon at Lod Air Base Monday.

Among the mourners present was Israeli President Moshe Katzav who described Ramon as an "outstanding person" with great personal charm and top skills.

"He showed us how he could make us all proud," Katzav said. "Ilan Ramon is a national symbol."

Ramon was among the seven astronauts killed Febuary 1 when the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas during re-entry -- shortly after experiencing high heat and air resistance on its left side and wing. He is to be buried Tuesday.

Ramon, 48, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, joined NASA as a payload specialist in 1997. The Columbia mission was his first space flight, and he handled 40 experiments while it was in orbit.

Katzav was one of several Israeli officials who paid tribute to Ramon and expressed their sorrow to his family. The U.S. charge d'affaires also was on hand.

"This is not how we imagined you coming home," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Ilan touched a hidden spot in the soul of every Jew. He brought something out in us ... his youthful face, his constant smile, that wonderful light in his eyes -- all of this has gone straight to our hearts."

Sharon added: "He went higher than anyone else and made his dream come true."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that during the shuttle flight, Ramon reported that he was overwhelmed by the sight of Jerusalem, the Red Sea and other landmarks that he could see.

"Ilan was a real pioneer," Mofaz said. "He took with him symbols of his Jewish identity; he took with him the symbols of his pride and our pride ... but he remained the laid-back, the modest Ilan."

In describing how close Ramon was to his crewmates, Ramon's 15-year-old son, Asaf, read a letter from Columbia astronaut David Brown that said: "My crewmates are like my family ... it will be hard to leave them."

Brown also described the beauty of the planet. Ramon's wife, Rona, translated the letter into Hebrew.

Born in Tel Aviv, Ramon fought in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and graduated from the Israeli Air Force's flight school in 1974.

In 1981, he dropped a bomb on a nuclear plant under construction in Iraq, destroying it. Katzav said the "daring" mission was more significant than Israelis realized, given recent moves toward a possible war with Iraq over their possession of suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Ramon received a degree in electronics and computer engineering from the University of Tel Aviv. He had three other children; the youngest was five. His second-oldest son is to have his bar mitzvah this month.

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