Ilan Ramon, a former fighter pilot and weapons specialist, fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in the 1982 war in Lebanon. In 1981, he was a member of the mission to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor before it became online.

In 1997, he was selected to be Israel's first astronaut, and began training at NASA a year later. He was promised a launch as early as 1999, but for several reasons, his flight - and the flight of an atmospheric dust-measuring experiment sponsored by Israel - was delayed.

The son of an Auschwitz death camp survivor, Ramon planned a tribute to those who endured the Holocaust - he carried up a small pencil drawing titled "Moon Landscape" by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy who was killed at Auschwitz.

He also packed a credit-card sized microfiche of the Bible given to him by President Moshe Katsav and some mezuzahs - cases containing excerpts from the Bible that are affixed to the door in Jewish houses.

A large Israeli contingent was on hand to watch the country's first astronaut head into space. Among the dignitaries were former Israel Air Force commanders in chief Eitan Ben-Eliyahu and Avihu Ben-Nun.

Ramon indicated that his flight would provide a welcome diversion for fellow Israelis. "I think people are very happy to be distracted by my flight," he told a news conference.

On the Tuesday before take-off, the seven flight members had a pre-flight party at one of the NASA installations. Each astronaut-to-be was allowed to invite five guests, and Ramon selected his wife Rona, his father, brother, brother-in-law, and his close friend Roni Shalein from Nahalal. Shalein later said: "For me, this was really exciting - to come from the cow shed at Nahalal and spend time with seven astronauts on their way into space."

Ramon's immediate family, who had spent the past four years with him in the U.S., confessed to being tense and nervous. Rona Ramon said: "This is definitely exciting, and we're approaching the big moment. It seems like a dream." At the bon voyage party Tuesday, Rona gave her husband four poems and some personal effects to take with him.

For his part, Ramon stressed that his years of training in the U.S. were enhanced by the close friendship he has cultivated with the other flight members. The other astronauts also mentioned their close relationship with Ramon at Houston training center.

Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, 79, who was also on hand for his son's flight into space, said the media blitz in Israel about the Columbia mission is excessive. Ramon's father called for "a little more modesty" about an Israeli's first space mission.

Ilan's brother Gadi left a sealed letter aboard the Columbia - his brother would only be able to read it after the space shuttle went into space. The astronaut's 15-year-old son Assaf, also left his father a note to be opened only in space. Assaf had said that he would also like to be a pilot or astronaut and said he misses life in Israel.

The crew that flew into space on January 16, whose code name is STS-107, was the first one in three years to concentrate exclusively on research and did not work on the space station.