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A rare symbol of hope vanished in three trails of smoke yesterday when Israel's first astronaut was lost in the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle over Texas, just minutes before landing.

Israel Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon was part of Columbia's seven-member science mission, which took off on January 16, bringing a rare sense of celebration and pride that detracted from the otherwise gloomy news of the ongoing intifada, scandal-plagued elections and the recession.

Yesterday, the shocked nation wondered if fate could have anything worse in store for it as it tuned in to watch the disaster broadcast live on television, instead of the landing which had been scheduled for 4:16 P.M.

Disbelief deepened as newscasters reported the shuttle crash was first heard over a town in Texas named Palestine, a bitter irony lost on no one.

A mission of peace

In a press conference yesterday, Israel Air Force Commander Dan Halutz said the State of Israel, the IDF and the air force salute Ilan Ramon and his friends who did not return from their mission. Halutz quoted from an e-mail Ramon had sent him about 24 hours before the explosion. "It is a great privilege to me to have been a member of the air force family for more than 30 years and to represent you here in space. Air and space are part of the same continuum."

Halutz said Israel would not hesitate to send more astronauts to space in the future, adding that investigation into the Columbia tragedy would be conducted by the American authorities.

Israel was shocked at the death of its first astronaut, a symbol of hope in the hard times the country is experiencing. "It was a celebration for the country and it is ending so tragically," one Israeli, Hezi Yitzhaki, commented yesterday. "An entire country was so proud of him. We are already in such a bad state."

"It's terrible because Israelis, my kids in school for instance, have been studying about space and the Israeli astronaut Ilan," Ricky Ben-Or from Jerusalem said.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Palestinian Authority was "shocked at the news of the tragedy. We sympathize with the families of the astronauts."

Israelis might have taken comfort in words Ramon himself had to reporters on the eve of his flight, repeated for broadcast yesterday on Channel One television.

"The route to the target is more important than the target," Ramon said. "We are going to go for the target, but we enjoy the route as well."

Ramon, 48, served as a fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force, first as a cadet during the Yom Kippur War. But it was a mission of peace which sealed Ramon's image as a true Israeli hero.

Ramon went to space with several scientific missions. As part of a research project conducted by Tel Aviv University, data the team was to collect about dust storms over the Mediterranean and in other places was to be used to calibrate satellites for independent tracking of such storms.

Ramon was also entrusted with four other experiments in which Israeli researchers are involved. An experiment directed by professors from Hebrew University examining the effects of sub-gravity on bone cells, experiments of the Israel Aviation and Space Medicine Research Institute (IAMI) checking the activity of "good" bacteria and the reaction of bacteria to sub-gravity, and a high school project in which students were trying to generate crystals the color of the Israeli flag. Much of the data was already transmitted from the shuttle.

Sharon had spoken to Ramon in a televised Earth-to-space exchange on January 22. The astronaut told Israelis to take heart and remember their "ability to survive despite everything from horrific periods of time."

In an e-mail Ramon sent to President Moshe Katsav on Thursday, he described what Israel looks like from outer space. "This morning we flew over Israel. I saw Jerusalem clearly from space. As I was watching our capital, I made one little prayer, `shma Israel'," Ramon wrote.

"I believe we have the best people in Israel, with phenomenal capabilities. With good leadership, the sky is the limit," the astronaut wrote.