Rona Ramon, Widow of Israel’s First Astronaut Ilan Ramon, Dies at 54

Her husband was killed in the Columbia space shuttle disaster; her son Asaf, a fighter pilot, died in a training accident

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
File photo: Asaf, Ilan and Rona Ramon in a vacation in Hawaii, 2002.
File photo: Asaf, Ilan and Rona Ramon in a vacation in Hawaii, 2002.Credit: AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Rona Ramon, the widow of Israel’s first and only astronaut, died of pancreatic cancer Monday at age 54.

Ramon’s husband, Ilan Ramon, was a crew member on America’s 2003 Columbia space shuttle mission when the spacecraft blew up, killing all on board. Rona Ramon later lost her son Asaf, an Israel Air Force fighter pilot, in a training accident.

She subsequently established the Ramon Foundation to promote academic excellence and social leadership among Israel’s young people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is "deeply sorrowed" by Ramon's death. "Rona had heroically stood up after the passing of her husband Ilan and son Asaf, our admired pilots. She had, just as heroically, fought against cancer, which sadly overpowered her. We will always remeber her and her incredible family."

Ramon was born in 1964 in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kiryat Ono. She served as a paramedic in the army and then earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the Wingate Institute. She later studied holistic health and worked as a holistic therapist.

In 1986, she married Ilan Ramon, an air force fighter pilot who took part in the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. The couple had four children.

She suffered the first of two major tragedies in her life when the space shuttle Columbia exploded on its return to earth, killing her husband, who had been on his maiden flight as an astronaut. “Organizational behavior, that’s what killed the Columbia’s crew,” she later told the Israeli investigative television program “Uvda.”

File photo: Rona Ramon with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, during the inauguration of the Ramon International Airport in southern Israel, July 17, 2018.Credit: Sivan Farag

Six years later, her eldest son, who had followed his father into the air force, was killed in a training accident when his F-16 crashed in the South Hebron Hills. He was buried alongside his father at Nahalal in Israel’s north.

Ramon later said she hadn’t hesitated to let her son Asaf enter the air force, despite having lost her husband. “A boy of 18 who has dreamed of flying all his life ... I wrote him a letter telling him I give him permission to begin his life,” she said. Nevertheless, his death was “a blow below the belt, beyond doubt,” she added.

In her interview with “Uvda,” she criticized the army for being inattentive to her son’s condition before the fatal flight. “We saw that he was tired,” she said. “It’s very frustrating, because they’re always talking about ‘the air force family.’ As a family, you need to see the members of your family. He was so exhausted, and he had no one to talk with. It drives me crazy.”

It was after Asaf Ramon’s death that she set up her foundation. She also began giving frequent lectures about her life and spoke a great deal about coping mechanisms in life.

“It’s true that the hand of fate has struck me, and how it has struck me. But I have the privilege of choosing how I get up and rise above the great crises that life had in store for me, and I decide which music I choose to hear,” she said.

File photo: Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon with his wife Rona following a Space Shuttle crew news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, January 3, 2003.Credit: Richard Carson/Reuters

“The suffering was great, and dealing with it was unbearable,” she continued. “Nevertheless, I knew I had people to live for, that was clear and convincing: I would keep going for my children, at the most simple and practical level. I would function. If I managed to make lunch for everyone, if I managed to pick everyone up on time from after-school activities and sports fields and not forget anyone – because that, too, has happened – then I was okay.”

On Israel’s 68th Independence Day two years ago, Rona Ramon lit a torch at the annual torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

In her speech at that event, she recited the following: “I, Rona Ramon, daughter of Gila and Yisrael, who were among the first members of youth aliyah from Turkey, am lighting this torch in honor of my loved ones Ilan and Asaf, who are a candle and a beacon for the realization of my vision; in honor of the air force pilots through the generations who have defended us from above; in honor of the spacemen who breached boundaries for humanity’s sake; in honor of my children and all the young people growing up with faith in mankind, love of country and hope for peace; and in honor of the family of the bereaved, in honor of those who act despite the pain and create from amid the darkness.”

Rona Ramon is survived by three children, Tal, Yiftah and Noa.

File photo: Rona and Asaf Ramon during a memorial service for Israel's first astronaut Ilan Ramon at Ben-Gurion International Airport, February 10, 2003.Credit: Paul Hanna/AP

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