Friends, Family Rally Round Widow in Houston

The Johnson Space Center is the pride of Houston. Yesterday the Space Center and the entire city were mourning the loss of the Columbia space shuttle and its seven crew members.

HOUSTON - The Johnson Space Center is the pride of Houston. Yesterday the Space Center and the entire city were mourning the loss of the Columbia space shuttle and its seven crew members. U.S. and Texas flags were lowered to half-mast and the roads leading to the Space Center were filled with signs expressing the solidarity of local business-owners with the astronauts' families.

The entrance to the space base turned into a makeshift memorial. On Saturday evening weeping civilians started coming there, lighting candles, posting signs and leaving balloons and toy space shuttles behind. "We are going to miss you all," "We will always remember you," read handwritten signs. Teddy bears and other such items were also left at the site, following the tradition of makeshift memorial sites created by the public at Ground Zero and the Pentagon.

At the center of the instantly-erected memorial an Israeli flag was raised, along with a sign, in English: "Ilan Ramon - you are our hero."

"Ilan departed when he was at the peak of his career," Rona Ramon, Ilan Ramon's wife, said yesterday. "He was with the people he loved and in a place he enjoyed so much."

Since the news of the disaster, she has been constantly accompanied by a close friend. The Ramon family lives near the Johnson Space Center, where Ilan Ramon was studying and training for his space mission.

Rona Ramon said her husband enjoyed every minute of his mission in space. "He was a true optimist. He didn't even write a will, it seemed unnecessary to him. But we will carry on his will of life. He had a smile, and we will carry on with that smile," she told reporters outside their home in Houston yesterday.

The family has spent more than four years in Houston, and has become part of the Jewish community there. The synagogue next to the Ramon residence conducted an impromptu memorial service for him on Saturday. Friends, who only three weeks ago bid him farewell and dedicated a book with good luck offerings to Ilan, got together to mourn his death. Nitzana, who wrote a poem for Ilan when he took off, added another stanza lamenting his loss. The Ramon family has still not decided how long they will stay in Houston.

The astronauts' families came to Florida on Saturday to watch the expected landing and greet their loved ones. Once it became clear that the Columbia would not be landing, the families were taken back to Houston in separate planes. NASA has contingency plans for disasters. A psychologist and a NASA representative were assigned to each family, but the Ramon family's strongest source of solace was astronaut Steve MacLean.

MacLean, who went in orbit on board the Columbia 11 years ago, helped Ilan Ramon throughout his training at NASA. MacLean and his wife became close friends of Ilan and Rona Ramon, and they were with Rona and the four children after the disaster as well. NASA believes that an experienced astronaut who knows the ins and outs of space travel, can be more helpful than any psychologist during the stressful period of the mission and after a disaster.

Brig. Gen. Raanan Falk, Air Force attache in Washington, is an old friend of the Ramon family. He and Ilan went through pilot training together, and since then have stayed close friends.

When Rona and the kids returned to Houston, she asked Falk to come and stay with her there. Rona showed him Ilan's last e-mail messages in which he wrote "I'll see you soon on the ground" and said how much he missed the family. Ramon's youngest, Noa, told Falk: "Daddy is watching us from above. He is staying there."

Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ayalon, who also came to Houston to be with the family, said Rona seemed strong. "She told me of her last conversation with Ilan, on Wednesday. He told her how beautiful the universe was and how much he felt a part of this universe," Ambassador Ayalon said.

Then she told him that Ilan will now be part of the universe of which he was so in awe.

More family members arrived in Houston yesterday, including Ilan's father and brother. Tomorrow NASA will be holding an official memorial service for the seven astronauts killed aboard the Columbia.

Houston feels the disaster more potently than more distant points, and the headlines of local papers expressed the collective feeling of mourning. It has been less than two decades since the Challenger exploded, and many streets and central places in the city are named after that lost shuttle and its crew members. Now, the city is experiencing the mourning process all over again. The Johnson Space Center is once again a focus of disaster and loss.