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Interview With David Ayalon

Aired February 1, 2003 - 12:20   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Heidi. We are in Washington, as you said. With me now is the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon. Mr. Ambassador, how did you find out about this this morning?
DANIEL AYALON, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Well, first of all I heard it from the news. And then Sean O'Keefe -- Mr. Sean O'Keefe, administrator of NASA, was kind enough to call and give me an update. This is a big tragedy for the United States, for Israel and, mainly, for the families. This is where we are headed now, to be with the family and to help in any way we can.

WOODRUFF: You're flying in a few minutes, or a little bit from now, to where? Where will you go?

AYALON: We're going to go to the Kennedy Space center in Cape Canaveral, in Florida. This is where the family's being flown to. They were waiting for the landing in Houston.

WOODRUFF: They were in Houston waiting.

AYALON: They were in Houston waiting. Right now they are being flown by NASA. We will go there, meet with them and try to give them as much comfort as possible.

WOODRUFF: You told me a moment ago that you had just met Mr. Ramon, what two weeks ago? Just two weeks ago, before this shuttle flight took off?

AYALON: Yes. This was on the day of the launch. This was a very special day for Israel, for Israeli/U.S. relations. And I think from a very human perspective, the special story of Ilan Ramon, who is the son of a survivor, who took with him to space, as he mentioned here before, a drawing of Peter Gintz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy who perished in the Holocaust. Before his death just -- he was drawing the earth as he imagined from space. This picture, this drawing went with Ilan on board. And stayed with him until the end.

WOODRUFF: What did it mean for the people of Israel, of your country, to have an astronaut going into space on a shuttle for the first time from Israel?

AYALON: Well, there was very special significance. First of all, we are very proud of our technological advance and prowess, so this was also a testament to Israel's position in high-tech and excellence and progress. Of course, every endeavor we do with the United States, we are very much proud of. It was also a testament to the strength of the relationship between the U.S. and America, And Israel. Israel is the only democracy in the middle east. We have is a special bond. And we took it into a different dimension up in space. Of course, the special story of Ilan Ramon. Just think, that in two generations, when we were at the lowest ebb, on verge of demise, in the Holocaust, and in two generations we were soaring up to excellence and really to the state of the art. So this was very, very significant.

WOODRUFF: Tell us a little bit more about Colonel Ramon. As you said, I understand, both his parents were survivors of the concentration --

AYALON: His mother was.

WOODRUFF: His mother was a survivor of the concentration camp. He had fought in two wars for Israel?

AYALON: Yes. He was a ...

WOODRUFF: Fighter pilot?

AYALON: Right.

WOODRUFF: And went on some, what, seven or eight years ago to say, I want, may have a career as an astronaut?

AYALON: Yes, he did. That was his, I guess, calling. Of course, in our context with the United States, with the administration, we thought of new areas of cooperation. The natural one was to look up into space. We have been cooperating in so many areas here on earth, so there was only to look up, to extend the cooperation and friendship between our two countries. That was the natural thing to do. And Ilan Ramon was the natural Israeli astronaut to send. He was the prepared mentally, and of course, professionally. He was the best we could offer.

WOODRUFF: What about his family? He had four children, a wife. They've been living with him in the United States. They obviously had extended family in Israel. This has to be unimaginable.

AYALON: Yes, it is. His father came specially. The training was, Judy, for more than two years. So he came here with the family. And they were very well integrated into the Houston community. They went -- his kids, he has four kids, as you mentioned. They went to school in Houston. His wife was very much a member of the community there. They really enjoyed it. I talked to his wife. They really enjoyed life in Houston and being with the astronauts, being with the Americans. It was a very special experience for them.

WOODRUFF: And now, Ambassador Ayalon, you're headed to Cape Canaveral for what is going to be a very difficult, very, very difficult time with them. We do so appreciate your coming in. Ambassador Daniel Ayalon from Israel to the United States, about to fly, as he said, to Cape Canaveral, to join the family of astronaut Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut on board the shuttle "Columbia." once again, we're waiting for a press conference, NASA press conference. That's at 1:00 eastern. As we leave you, the flag at the White House at half staff. Miles, back to you.


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