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Ilan Ramon showed no fear prior to the January 16 launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia. "The chances an accident would happen in space are very small," Ramon told Ma'ariv last month. "As far as safety is concerned, I'm not concerned at all... I'm sorry, but I'm not afraid," he said.

"During takeoff you are sitting on a barrel of explosives that contains two million liters of fuel. The shuttle consumes 4,000 liters a second during the first eight hours of takeoff, until it starts orbiting around the earth," Ramon said. "In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else. The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup."

Ramon, 48, was an air force colonel, and his military career reportedly included the 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor, a milestone for Israeli aviation, since the planes flew over Arab territory for hours without detection: The pilots flew in a tight formation to send off a radar signal resembling that of a large commercial airliner.

Ramon, who got his wings in 1974, had logged 4,000 hours of flight time and was part of the first Israeli squad to pilot American-made F-16 fighter jets in 1980. He also fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur and in the Lebanon Wars.

"I joined the Air Force exactly 30 years ago, and have been flying ever since," Ramon told Ma'ariv. "I was involved in several accidents, two of them serious. I had to abort, but thank God I made it in one piece. Accidents in fear are history for me."

In 1983, Ramon left the Israel Defense Forces, and finished an undergraduate degree in electronic and computer engineering at Tel Aviv University in 1987. One year later he returned to the Israel Air Force as second-in-command of a Phantom squadron. Ramon rapidly moved up the ladder and became colonel in 1994.

Ramon's future track as Israel's first astronaut came as quite a surprise. "One evening, someone from [IAF] personnel called me and said `Do you want to be an astronaut'?" Ramon told Yedioth Ahronoth prior to Columbia's launch. "I said, `Stop bulshitting me, I don't have time for jokes.' Then he told me that the air force commander had asked us to find someone to become an astronaut," Ramon said.

Ramon told Yedioth that as a child he wanted to be a basketball player, but he wasn't tall enough. Since the shuttle cabin is two square meters, "this time I'll benefit from my short height," he said.

Ramon first began his preparations as an astronaut in 1997 as a payload specialist. 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 the earth's atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.

Ramon, whose mother and grandmother survived the Holocaust, brought onto the space shuttle a small pencil drawing titled "Moon Landscape" by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz.

He also packed a credit-card sized microfiche of the Bible given to him by President Moshe Katsav as well as some mezuzahs.

Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, gave him family photos to take into space and his brother gave him a letter, which Ramon read in orbit.

"Israel looks from here just like it does on the map, small but charming," Ramon said in a conversation with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Education Minister Limor Livnat last week. "We have a wonderful people, and it is very important to preserve our heritage," he said.

Israelis were very enthusiastic prior to the Columbia launch. "[Ramon] is fulfilling everyone's dream, to be the first Israeli in space," a Channel Two commentator said just before the lift off.

Ramon's wife Rona and the couple's four small children yesterday were in Texas, where the space shuttle was scheduled to land. The family had been living in the United States for several years as Ramon prepared for the flight.