Working on the documentary “An Article of Hope,” Rona Ramon had to review footage depicting the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which blew up over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.
Onboard Columbia was her husband, Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut in space. He died in the accident, along with six other astronauts.
It was difficult to watch, but then, it’s never easy.
“We live it daily,” Rona says of her memories of the disaster. “So of course it’s painful. But I always wanted to emphasize the beautiful person that Ilan was. That is what I emphasize in all my actions in the present.”
“An Article of Hope” will make its Bay Area premiere Oct. 20 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto as the opening-night film of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. Rona Ramon will be in attendance and will speak to the audience following the screening, as will director Dan Cohen.
The one-hour film recaps Ilan Ramon’s remarkable life: son of Holocaust survivors, ace fighter pilot, squadron leader of the 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility, and Israel’s first astronaut.
He was already a national hero before his death at age 48. As the film reveals, Ilan’s efforts in space to unite all Jews — notably by sharing with a global viewing audience a miniature Torah that survived the Bergen-Belsen death camp — made him a hero to the Jewish people.
A mix of archival footage and interviews with NASA colleagues, Israeli scientists, friends and family, the film paints a portrait of a modest, handsome and reluctant role model.
For his widow, the film keeps her husband’s memory alive. Eliciting her participation in the filmmaking process was an easy sell. Said Rona from her home in Israel, “[Director Dan Cohen] didn’t have to convince me too much. I knew it was a unique story.”
For his lengthy NASA training, Ilan relocated to Houston, along with his family. The film includes scenes of the Columbia crew bonding on a Wyoming wilderness camping trip and clowning around in the training facility.
Rona has fond memories of those days in 2002, when her husband trained for his mission.
“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “We became a big multicultural family. I believe when we work for all mankind at NASA, all the differences and gaps disappear. We came out from Israel representing our country and the air force. Very fast we learned that we were actually representing much more than that.”
Columbia broke up 16 minutes short of landing (likely caused by a chunk of hardened insulating foam that slammed into the left wing on liftoff). Few know that Ilan kept an onboard handwritten journal, which was largely recovered on the ground and returned to his wife.
Between the miniature Torah and the survival of his journal, the film hints at a touch of the miraculous in the last flight of Columbia. The astronaut also took with him into space a mezuzah crafted by Bay Area artist Aimee Golant.
Why did he go out of his way to reinforce his Jewish identity during the mission? Says his widow, “It’s the Jewish legacy, the tradition of our people without borders. When you do something for all mankind, this is of the highest significance.”
Incredibly, tragedy struck the Ramon family again when eldest son Asaf Ramon, 21, died in an Israel Air Force training accident in 2009.
Somehow Rona Ramon presses on. A psychologist, she treats private patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other life crises. But most of her time is spent lecturing about her husband’s legacy through the Ramon Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for schools in Israel and around the world.
She also stays in touch with family members of the Columbia crew. Many of them visited Israel a few years ago, and Rona says they feel like one family because of the “love and pain we share.”
Despite that pain, she dedicated herself to making “An Article of Hope.”
“I felt obligated to continue what Ilan wanted to say and for his legacy,” she says of the project. “We felt that we were touching history.”
“An Article of Hope” screens 8 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. www.svjff.org