Students reflect Israelis' despair at Ramon's death

High school experiment heightens connection to space shuttle tragedy

The Loss Of Columbia

February 03, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIRYAT MOTZKIN, Israel - It took three years of waiting, but the high school students here were finally able to watch their science experiment about crystals soar into space with their country's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

For the past two weeks, data streamed from the space shuttle Columbia to the Internet, and the students beamed with pride as the crystals sprouted blue and white tentacles - the colors of the Israeli flag.

Yesterday, these students from Ort Motzkin High School joined the rest of Israel in mourning Ramon and the six other astronauts who perished when Columbia broke apart Saturday 39 miles above the Earth, and the loss was deeply felt. Israel is a small country accustomed to tragedy, but Ramon's death seemed especially harsh for young people in desperate search of heroes.

Ilana Zibenberg, 16, recalled hearing Ramon speak a year ago, as he talked about the crystal-growing experiment she helped prepare, and she is just beginning to understand what happened in the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere.

"I turned on the television to see a glorious moment, Ilan landing, and what we got was a surprise," Zibenberg said. "It exploded. At first I didn't understand. It was only today that I knew he was dead."

In flight, Ramon had offered his countrymen an escape from conflict and politics and boosted the country's sagging morale; in death, he added to the fatalism felt by the many Israelis who fear that nothing good will happen to them.

The newspaper Maariv devoted 25 of its 32 pages to the disaster, calling the accident a cosmic curse. Writer Arik Bechar asked, "How it is possible to explain the jinx that has been pursuing us over the past few years on earth, and yesterday pursued us to the limits of the atmosphere?"

Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit added his own despairing words: `This country, so used to looking down on itself, held its breath at the prospect of a different reality, that of a country that can defy the gravity of its fate."

The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper ran a simple headline that captured the somber mood: "Broken Heart."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at his weekly Cabinet meeting, vowed that more Israelis would fly in space; the meeting was also attended by U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer.

"Our two nations shared joy and admiration for the heroism and bravery of the crew," Kurtzer said. "We shared hopes and dreams of the advances that this mission promised for the betterment of mankind. ... As we share triumphs, we also share misfortune."

Radio stations repeatedly played a folk song that Ramon's wife, Rona, asked NASA to use as a wake-up call during her husband's second day in space, and listeners yesterday heard it as somehow prophetic.

"My last days are coming close," the final stanza goes. "Close is the day of the day of parting tears. I shall wait for you until my life extinguishes."

In Houston, Ramon's grieving friends and relatives arrived yesterday to join his widow and four children.

"We are deeply sorry for all the families," Cohava Eyal, Ramon's sister, told the Associated Press at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Eyal, wearing a space shuttle mission pin, was among six family members and three friends arriving in Houston.

"We are wrapped up in our grief now," said family friend Hudit Keren.

The students at Ort Motzkin made their own memorial at school, moving partitions into a hallway and covering them with the morning's newspaper clippings, photos of Ramon working on their experiment and personal notes.

Liat Iskayev, an 11th-grader, penned a message to God. "I hope you know up there that the people of Israel are sad and are hurting," she wrote. "He should have emerged from the heavens like some sort of Messiah."

The science students recalled their experiment, a project to watch how certain crystals grow in near weightlessness. On Earth, the crystals grow spaghetti-like tentacles that reach upward, against gravity, making them difficult to study.

The students hoped the crystals would react differently in space. As students predicted, one of the crystals grew in a random pattern and the other formed a symmetrical shape.

"We were very proud," said the group's teacher, Amira Birnbaun, who wore a T-shirt showing the Columbia craft and the official designation of the experiment STS-107. "We were right, and it was very satisfying to be right in science."

But to complete the experiment, the students need not only the data, but also the crystals, to examine them under an electron microscope. "That won't be possible anymore," Zibenberg said.

The students started the project more than three years ago, when many of them were in junior high, and Ort Motzkin won over many other Israeli schools for the honor, eventually becoming one of only six schools in the world to have an experiment aboard the spacecraft.

Some members of the 35-member group traveled to Boulder, Colo., to work with university students and professors to refine their experiment, and five Ort Motzkin students traveled to Florida to watch Columbia's launch.

Two days later, a representative from Mission Control in Houston called Dor Zafrir, 16, to give the official order for Ramon to begin growing the crystals as part of the program code-named Stars. It was 2:30 a.m., and Zafrir, who knew the call was coming, had invited friends over to watch.

"Stars Houston, this is Stars Israel," Zafrir said over the telephone. "Commence Israel's Chemical Gardens on my mark."

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