Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, knew he was carrying the hopes of an entire people into space.
The 48-year-old Israeli air force colonel carried a microfiche of the Bible given him by his country's president, a tiny Torah scroll given to a Holocaust survivor at a Nazi concentration camp and a small pencil drawing titled "Moon Landscape" by a boy killed at the Auschwitz camp.
Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor, was not particularly religious but decided to eat kosher food in orbit, saying before the flight that he wanted "to respect all kinds of Jews all over the world."
He also took a silver-and-copper mezuzah into space with a star of David ringed with bits of barbed wire, the kind used in Nazi concentration camps.
"Ilan wanted a symbol of the Holocaust to carry with him into space," said Aimee Golant, the artist who crafted the mezuzah, which traditionally graces the door of a Jewish home.
NASA selected Ramon in 1997 to be a payload specialist. Along with his wife and their four children, he had been living in Texas for several years as he prepared for the flight.
He spent much of Columbia's 16-day flight aiming cameras in an Israel Space Agency study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth's atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.
His presence on the shuttle following 28 months of fighting between Israel and Palestinians, led to increased security surrounding the flight.
But it also was a source of pride in a nation worn by the grinding conflict. Israeli newspapers featured him on the front page, and Israel television broadcast the Jan. 16 liftoff live.
Ronit Federman, a friend of Ramon's since high school, took comfort from e-mails he sent from space.
"He wrote about the divine happiness of looking at Earth," she told Israel's Channel 10 television. "He wrote that he would like to keep floating for the rest of his life. That was the last sentence he wrote to us."
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press