Text size

Colonel Ilan Ramon yesterday gave chilling meaning to the Biblical expression, "The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places."

Columbia's 28th voyage into space, and the 101st mission of all four space shuttles in total, was not an Israel Air Force operational order; however, during the past year, space has been at the top of the IAF's agenda of priorities.

In the new version of "The purpose of the airborne arm and its duties" that was presented to the General Staff, IAF Commander Major General Dan Halutz stipulates that the task of the air force is "to operate in the realm of the air and space to defend the State of Israel and to play a part in deterring war and achieving the goals of war." The primary duty of the IAF, as outlined in the document, is "to defend the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces' area of operation from the air and space."

Yesterday, Ramon became Israel's first fallen soldier in this remote arena - the battlefield of the 21st century.

Halutz's statements to the media last night regarding the IAF's commitment to its space program stem from the belief that the future is indeed in space, and that Israel cannot afford to be left out of it. IAF headquarters currently includes only a "Space Division," but there are plans to boost efforts in this field.

Some 42 years have passed since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; and still today, astronauts, for the most part, are military men and women - including six out the seven on Columbia. The technology involved in putting such a complex mission into practice - rockets, satellites, computers - has a dual purpose, both military and civilian. This aspect of space exploration hasn't changed since the Americans recruited Wernher Von Braun, the German scientist who developed the V1 and V2 rockets used in World War II, to assist with the development of the Redstone rockets, which were used both to launch the first astronauts into space and to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Initially, space flights were a derivative of the Cold War and a struggle over both content and prestige between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The Cold War ended with a resounding U.S. victory, in no small part due to the fact that the space developments allowed former U.S. president Ronald Reagan to embark on the so-called Star Wars program, which threatened to topple the Soviet economy had it dared to attempt to imitate it.

And then in 1986, just when Reagan's program was beginning to gain ground - also leading to the development of the Arrow missile - the Challenger space shuttle exploded in mid-air shortly after its launch. The decision to renew the launches was, as per usual, a mixture of politics and policy.

The second major recent blow suffered by U.S. national pride, less than 18 months after the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, could increase doubt regarding the supremacy of American hardware and wisdom, and is likely to harden President George W. Bush's resolve to take action - and soon - against Saddam Hussein.