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A Trip to Remember


The Israeli students laugh as one of them participates in a physics experiment. Forty Israeli high school freshmen made the trip of their young lifetime on Feb. 13 and 14, 2006, to visit Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The students are enrolled in a pilot space studies program meant to encourage interest in science, so it would seem they crossed half the globe mainly to be wowed by mammoth rockets and gleaming space station components. But the truth is they came to pay tribute to a lost explorer.

Image to right: The Israeli students laugh as one of their classmates participates in a physics demonstration. Credit: NASA

"The reason we're here is mostly in memory of Ilan Ramon," explained trip chaperon and guidance counselor Kee Koch.

Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut to fly in space. He died along with six fellow crewmembers when space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry in 2003. Despite the tragic loss, Koch believes the life Ramon led sets an example for the heights Israeli students can reach in space flight and science. "We need to keep his memory alive," Koch added.

Ramon's roots in the students' hometown -- the southern city of Beersheba -- inspired the creation of the space studies curriculum. "The program began because Ilan Ramon graduated from one of our high schools -- Mekif Gimel," said Koch. "It's important to remember he would've come back a hero."

In addition to honoring the legacy of Ramon, it's hoped the program will raise the sagging interest Israeli teens have in pursuing careers in science. "Israel is having the same problem the United States is having with getting young people interested in science and technology," said Jeff Fishkin, a NASA space shuttle logistics engineer who helped organize the student trip to Kennedy. Fishkin started working with the program in 2003 when he was president of the Jewish Federation of Brevard. The engineer serves as the trip's American contact and coordinates housing, transportation and events for the students. Fishkin believes Ramon is a great role model for kids because of his contributions to his country and science. "It's important to remember that Ilan Ramon was not only a fighter pilot, but also an engineer."

Koch knows getting kids hooked on science means enticing them to take classes like chemistry and physics, and she believes the space studies program might be a way to do so. In 10th grade, her students choose subjects they want to focus on in 11th and 12th grade. "We're hoping that next year when they choose their major and minors, they'll choose the sciences," said Koch.

The group spent two days visiting the center. The first day was devoted to touring Kennedy aboard coach buses to see sights such as the space shuttle launch pads and Saturn V rocket exhibit. Day two, however, focused on a memorial to Ramon.

Following a morning seminar at the Center for Space Education, the students quietly walked over to the nearby Space Mirror Memorial. As the afternoon wind wafted past the mirror, two students unfurled blue-and-white Israeli flags while Koch and four other students stood between them holding pictures of Ramon. They took turns reading aloud essays they'd written about Ramon -- four essays written in Hebrew and one in English. Koch confirmed in her piece that "heroes are hard to come by" and "Ilan Ramon was one of us." The reading was followed by a moment of silence and a simple but elegant dance performed as a tribute by three female students.

The student's memorial concluded with the singing of "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem. The song's name means "The Hope" and on this day it seemed not only to symbolize the faith of a young country, but also its reverence for fallen champions and the optimism in the youth they may continue to inspire.

Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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