PM: The Day Will Come When Other Israeli Astronauts Will Fly in Space'

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened the weekly cabinet meeting yesterday morning with a statement honoring Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and his six American comrades who died on Saturday when the Columbia space shuttle exploded in the skies over Texas.

Sharon expressed his condolences to the families of the astronauts and vowed that "their deaths will not be in vain. Mankind's journey into space will continue. U.S.-Israeli cooperation in this endeavor will continue as well. The day will come when other Israeli astronauts will be launched into space."

The prime minister said the tragedy had reinforced the feeling of kinship and common destiny between the U.S. and Israel. "It is at times like these that we feel our common fate, identity and values, and shared vision, which we realized during Col. Ilan Ramon's journey into space."

Sharon added that the death of the seven astronauts in the space shuttle disaster is "part of the heavy price that the human race must pay in its quest for knowledge and in its desire to explore other worlds."

The prime minister said that did not really know Ramon personally, but "was familiar with his record as a daring fighter pilot and an excellent commander." He praised Israel's first astronaut as "a man of values, who deeply loved this people and this land, a man who should not have been taken from us so suddenly."

He noted that he spoke Saturday night with Ramon's wife and his father. "I am sure that everyone will join me in conveying our condolences and support to this wonderful family, a family that we are all proud of."

In conclusion, the prime minister stated, "All Israelis bow their heads in memory of Col. Ilan Ramon and the crew of the shuttle Columbia, heroes of our journey into space."

Ambassador Kurtzer pays tribute

American Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer was invited to address the cabinet and paid tribute to the seven astronauts, saying that their tragic mission underlined the common brotherhood of all the earth's peoples and the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

"Seventeen days ago, Americans and Israelis turned their eyes towards the heavens with pride and anticipation as the Columbia space shuttle lifted upward carrying seven brave astronauts. Our two nations shared joy and admiration for the heroism and bravery of the crew. We shared hopes and dreams of the advances that this mission promised for the betterment of humankind," Kurtzer said.

"Today Americans and Israelis come together again to mourn those seven astronauts... In paying tribute to these heroes, our two nations can draw on deep reservoirs of courage, character and fortitude. As we share triumphs, we also share misfortune," the ambassador continued.

"Just last week, Col. Ramon said from space, `The world looks marvelous from up here - so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile.' His words evoked thoughts of an American poet [Archibald MacLeish], who said after an earlier Apollo flight `To see the earth as we see it now - small and beautiful and blue in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together; brothers on that bright loveliness in the unending night; brothers who see now that they are truly brothers.'"

The ambassador reiterated in conclusion that "Americans and Israelis are brothers indeed - on earth and in space" and noted that President Bush had promised the American people Saturday night that "our journey into space will go on."