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Israel grieving death of first astronaut

Ilan Ramon
Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, gives a thumbs-up sign before the mission.

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CNN's Bruce Burkhardt looks at the career of Ilan Ramon, 48, who was Israel's first astronaut.
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CNN's Miles O'Brien talked with CNN's Kelly Wallace to gauge reaction in Israel.
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start quoteBeing able to conduct a press conference from space as the first Israeli astronaut, looking at the U.S. and Israeli flags behind us, I think its a big 'oh wow' for Israel, and a big start for future scientific collaborations internationally.end quote
-- Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon on being the first Israeli in space

(CNN) -- Israel is in mourning over the loss of Col. Ilan Ramon -- the first person from his country to fly in space.

Ramon, a payload specialist on the shuttle Columbia, was praised by Israelis as a symbol of "excellence and freedom" and mourned by his countrymen as "the best we could offer."

Ramon, 48, a career military man, dropped a bomb that destroyed a nuclear plant being built in Iraq during an Israeli raid in 1981.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, addressing a weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, said: "[The seven astronauts'] deaths were not in vain.

"Man's journey into space will continue. Cooperation between the United States and Israel in this field will also continue. The day will come when we will launch more Israeli astronauts into space."

President Bush, in a phone conversation with Sharon, called Ramon a "brave Israeli citizen" and said his death was "tragic," a spokesman for Sharon said.

"This is a tragic day for the families of the astronauts and a tragic day for science," Bush said.

Ramon "was so happy that he doesn't want to come back to Earth. And he didn't come back to Earth," said his brother, Roi.

Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, had gone to a television station in Jerusalem to watch the landing. He was being interviewed live, when the anchor interrupted to say the shuttle was having problems and that the station was switching its broadcast to a reporter at the Kennedy Space Center.

"It's very difficult," Wolferman said later, at his house. "We never expected such a thing to happen. That's all I can say at the moment."

Last month, in an interview with the newspaper Ma'ariv, Ramon said: "The chances an accident would happen in space are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I'm not concerned at all. ... I'm sorry, but I'm not afraid."

He added, "In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else. The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup."

Bush called Sharon at 1:30 p.m. EST at the newly re-elected prime minister's farm in southern Israel, spokesman Ra'anan Gissin said.

Bush asked Sharon to pass along his condolences and those of the American people to Ramon's family to "strengthen their hand at this difficult moment," Gissin said.

Sharon, Gissin said, expressed his condolences to the American people and the families of the astronauts.

In such a moment, Sharon said, the "hearts of the American people and the people of Israel are bonded together. We all are holding hands and we all pray together."

In a statement, Sharon said, "The Israeli government sends its condolences to every house in Israel, to Rona Ramon and the Ramon family, the families of the American astronauts, the president of the United States George Bush and to the entire American nation.

"These times strengthen the feeling of common destiny, values and common vision of the American and Israeli nations. Ilan Ramon and his friends on the space shuttle were victims of science, the progress and aspiration of all of us to a better life on Earth. The Israeli nation is mourning in light of this heavy tragedy."

Palestinians send condolences

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat sent a letter of condolence to Bush.

"He expressed his deepest condolences to President Bush and to the American people and to the families of the astronauts in this tragic explosion of the space shuttle Columbia," Erakat said.

News of the disaster dominated Israeli newspapers.

In addition, "President Arafat expressed his condolences to the six American families and to the Israeli family for the loss of their loved ones in the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia."

As Israel's first astronaut, Ramon had become a hero to many Israelis.

"He brought out a very positive aspect of Israel, and we were proud of him," said Shirley Litt, an American-born Israeli citizen who lives in Jerusalem.

"He symbolized that there was good in the world, and he kept talking about seeing Israel as he passed over it. It made us feel part of the world in a very positive way instead of all the bad news coming from here," she said. "It was the one good thing."

She added, "It feels very personal to everybody ... this is like something that touches everybody here."

Ramon's widow said their family remembers him as an optimist and a hero who died with six other talented and unique crew members.

"He was a very happy person, and we think about Ilan with all the heroism -- that big astronaut, big fighter pilot," said Rona Ramon after a memorial service at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"He was a wonderful dad," she said. "God picked the best to stay with him, and I think he made a right choice. Oh, this crew -- this crew is just the top of the top. Incredible people. And they will stay together, forever young, forever beautiful. Together."

Ramon was born in Tel Aviv and had undergone two years of training in Houston for his space flight.

"This is a big tragedy for the United States and for Israel and for the families," Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, told CNN.

Ramon's mother survived a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust.

He had taken with him on his trip into space a drawing made by a 14-year-old boy who died in a concentration camp. The picture showed Earth as he imagined it would be seen from space.

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