CAPE CANAVERAL — Israelis are known as avid world travelers, but now one has gone out of this world.
In the process, air force Col. Ilan Ramon has become a hero to his fellow Israelis.
Ramon's trip into space, covered prominently by all Israeli media, gave Israelis a break from more than two years of terror-filled headlines.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, Ramon joined six shuttle astronauts for a ride into space that began Jan. 16, becoming the first Israeli to see his country in global perspective.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon got on the phone to send the best wishes of his fellow Israelis.
Ramon, in a dark shirt with an Israeli flag on the lapel, was visible on a screen set up at the Prime Minister's Office. He also held up a miniature Torah that he had been given by a Holocaust survivor.
The tiny brown scroll floated away from him for a moment. As he grabbed it back, he said, "It represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive, despite everything."
Speaking via satellite phone, Sharon wished Ramon good luck on his space mission, and sent him "blessings from Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years and forever."
Asked what it felt like to be in outer space, Ramon replied, "I feel right at home."
Sharon asked the astronaut what he saw from space, and Ramon, taking the microphone, replied, "What I can see from here is that we really have a very beautiful country…We can see a really nice light blue color" over Israel's skies.
Not to ignore Ramon's fellow travelers, Sharon invited the Americans aboard the space shuttle Columbia to visit Israel after they touch down Saturday, Feb 1.
"We really appreciate the invitation, and if the people of Israel are as nice as Ilan and his family, we know that we will be expecting a very warm welcome when we come to visit Israel," the shuttle's commander, Rick Husband, replied.
The Labor Party, meanwhile, attacked the broadcast of the conversation, issuing a statement that said: "The failed policy of Sharon has reached up to space to mask his deeds here on Earth."
While the broadcast triggered a minor tempest on the eve of Israel's election, the reception was generally favorable in both the United States and the Jewish state. After months of delays, even Florida's fickle weather was cooperative for last week's launch, providing a deep blue background for the twin pillars of white smoke that trailed the Columbia shuttle during its eight-minute climb to orbit.
"These are our national colors, you know," Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, pointed out.
Ayalon and about 300 guests of the embassy, many of whom had traveled from Israel, watched Ramon's launch from a special viewing area at the Kennedy Space Center here. Among the guests were two former commanders of the Israeli air force.
"In two generations, we've moved from the lowest ebb, the darkest point of our history," Ayalon said, referring to the Holocaust, "to a very great moment of excellence and achievement."
In Israel, officials kvelled over the milestone. President Moshe Katsav said Ramon's liftoff "fills us with pride."
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the event signaled that "the sky is not the limit."
Israeli newspapers gave the countdown front-page coverage, while radio and television carried live broadcasts of the liftoff.
"One giant leap for Israel," Yediot Ahronot said, while Ma'ariv said Ramon "touches the skies."
Ma'ariv said the event marked a significant step in Israel's participation in space research, with implications for the country's technological progress and security. Though the Israel Space Agency was established only in 1982, Israel is one of only eight countries that can launch satellites.
Only Ha'aretz refused to join in the good mood. One commentator wrote a scathing article criticizing Israeli media for making such a big deal over the country's first astronaut.
A married father of four, Ramon, 48, is a former fighter pilot and weapons specialist who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in the 1982 Lebanon War.
In 1981, he took part in the Israeli air raid that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak.
Though Ramon comes from a secular background, he said he hoped during the mission to show respect for all Jews around the world.
He asked NASA for kosher food for the mission and consulted with rabbis on how to observe the Sabbath while whizzing above the earth. He took with him a microfiche Bible presented by Katsav, and a dollar bill from the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
The miniature Torah was given to Ramon by Yosef Joachim, now a scientist at Tel Aviv University. Joachim received the Torah at his secret Bergen-Belsen bar mitzvah from a rabbi who was killed two months later.
Ramon also took into space a drawing lent by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial titled "Lunar Landscape." The drawing was made in the Theresienstadt Ghetto by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Czech Jew who was a fan of Jules Verne.
Yad Vashem officials said the picture "connects the dream of one Jewish boy who is a symbol of the talent lost in the Holocaust, to the journey of one Jewish astronaut, who is a symbol of our revival."
Ramon also took four songs from his wife, and letters from his brother and son.
Ramon's son wouldn't reveal the contents of the letter, except to say that he told his father "how much I love him, how proud I am of him and that he's the best dad in the world."
Despite the presence of an Israeli astronaut, NASA says its security measures were the same as they have been since Sept. 11. However, restrictive zones were set up around the Cocoa Beach, Fla., hotel where most of the Israeli guests were staying prior to the launch.
The crowd, which included several American Jews from local and national organizations, waved Israeli flags and sang "Oseh Shalom Bimromav" — "Make Peace in the Heavens" — as the shuttle faded from view.
Ayalon hailed Ramon's flight as "a testament to Israeli achievements in science and technology.
"We're very happy and proud to share and pull together with our best friend and ally, the United States. Cooperation is great; it's another dimension that we've taken into space, and it's a great beginning of many more opportunities to come."
Others watching the blastoff were more down to earth.
"I thought it was tremendous," said Danny Doron, 57, a friend of Ramon's from Haifa who now lives in Houston. "I'm very proud."
Doron's wife, Rachel, added that "all you hear about Israel now is that there are problems, war, terrorism. For a change, we have something else to look to."
Ramon and his crewmates will work on more than 80 science experiments, including one designed by a group of Israeli students.
Ramon's main role will be to use a camera designed to study sandstorms in the Middle East, and their impact on global warming. The study, designed at Tel Aviv University, is intended to provide information on how dust affects rainfall.
"For the younger generation, this stands for what we really want to promote: excellence, involvement, and contributing and helping all humankind," Ayalon said.
Ramon has been training at the Space Center in Houston for his role as a payload specialist since 1998.
The shuttle mission had been postponed several times over the past two years. Most recently, it was pushed back six months because of repairs to the shuttle, and because of space station assembly missions that were considered higher priority.
"If there's ever a time to use the phrase 'All good things come to people who wait,' this is it," the launch's director, Michael Leinbach, said before the launch. "Good luck and Godspeed.''