Colonel Ilan Ramon was the first person from Israel to go into space and one of seven astronauts who died when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the sky above Texas during re-entry on 1 February, 2003.
Col Ramon was born on 20 June, 1954, in Tel Aviv. His mother and grandmother were survivors of Auschwitz concentration camp. After leaving high school in 1972 he joined the Israeli Air Force and fought in the Yom Kippur War.
He qualified as a fighter pilot in 1974 and gained experience in various aircraft, including time training in Utah. In 1983, he began a degree in electronics and computer engineering at Tel Aviv University.
He returned to the air force after graduating and notched up over 4,000 hours of flying time before being selected by NASA for its astronaut training programme in 1997.
“I never thought I would've been an astronaut,” he said. “I'm a pilot, a fighter pilot and I love to fly! Flying aircrafts, fighter aircraft, is great. And I was very happy. I've never dreamed to be an astronaut. When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space.”
His role on the ill-fated STS-107 mission was that of payload specialist in charge of the equipment needed for the 80 experiments into microgravity the crew carried out during their 16 days in space.
Despite a secular upbringing, Col Ramon observed many Jewish traditions during his flight on Columbia, including eating kosher food, saying he felt he was representing all Jews. From space, he said: "The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile.
“The atmosphere is so thin and fragile, and I think all of us have to keep it clean and good. It saves our life and gives our life."
Col Ramon was survived by his wife and four children – before the flight he said the births of his children had been the most exciting moments of his life. He was posthumously honoured with several prestigious medals from Israel and the USA and several buildings and streets in both countries were named in his honour.
The mission that killed him had already been beset by various problems, with the launch being delayed for more than two years. The disaster occurred after a small foam insulation panel broke loose during take-off on 16 January. The debris struck the left wing, damaging the shuttle’s thermal protection system.
Although engineers suspected that Columbia had been damaged, NASA managers decided that even if there was damage there was nothing that could be done about it and didn’t order an investigation. They attempted to bring the shuttle back to earth as planned, but hot gases in the atmosphere penetrated the craft’s structure and caused it to break up, scattering fragments across the Texas countryside from an altitude of 38 miles.
After the disaster, an investigation was heavily critical of NASA flight managers for not observing safety protocol and the Space Shuttle programme was set back over two years. President George W Bush said the death of the crew had “brought terrible news and great sadness to our country”.