Israels first astronaut training with NASA to prep for launch

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CHICAGO — When Ilan Ramon orbits into space "becoming the first Israeli astronaut in the history of the world" his message will be one of Jewish unity in Israel.

"There are so many problems in terms of differences" politically, ethnically and religiously "that my message is to try to get all of us together," Ramon said during a recent visit to Chicago, as a guest of the Chicago Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

Ramon, a war hero, fighter pilot and high-ranking colonel in the Israeli army, was selected by the Israeli government and NASA as the first Israeli to go into space. As a payload specialist on the space shuttle, a non-American citizen with specialized duties, he will operate a special camera from space to take photos of the earth. The data will be used by scientists at the University of Tel Aviv and NASA to research dust aerosols in the Mediterranean and the influence of global changes on climate.

Ramon, currently in training on the shuttle system at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, moved to the United States from Israel with his wife and four children. His space shuttle mission has yet to be announced, but he estimates that he will go up in about two years, and return to Israel shortly afterward.

While leaving this earth and returning to it is an awe-inspiring prospect to most people, Ramon keeps his enthusiasm in check.

"Of course it's overwhelming to be able to see the earth," he admitted, upon prodding. "Yes, I'm excited."

But Ramon's reticence may just be indicative of a fighter pilot personality, of a man used to embarking on dangerous, high-pressure missions, who prefers to keep his mind on the task ahead instead of talking about it.

"Pilots are able to be very concentrated on their tasks, and that's the reason I'm not nervous or afraid. I'm so concentrated on my mission, I can't think about anything else," he said.

Ramon received special honors for his valor in the Yom Kippur War and the war in Lebanon.

Watching as Ramon, his colonel's uniform emblazoned with pilot's wings, mingled with traders at the Mercantile Exchange and posed for pictures, Hezi Levy, president of Chicago Friends of IDF, who went to elementary school with Ramon in Beersheva, marveled at his friend's success.

"He was a very good student, very smart, and a very quiet kid. I was the wild one. I never thought he'd be a pilot," said Levy.

Yet the pilot and soon-to-be astronaut merely shrugged and answered wide-eyed questions about space suits, floating in the shuttle, vacuum-packed dehydrated food, and even hygiene, without fanfare.

Technicalities were explained patiently: how long it takes to go into space (just over eight minutes, traveling 160 miles from earth); gravitational issues (astronauts do float around in the shuttle); whether it's light out ("depends on which side of the earth the shuttle is on"); when he sleeps (your body clock is set to wherever you're currently living — n his case, central standard earthling time); how long his space journey lasts (five to 16 days).

And what about those intricate pain-threshold tests former astronaut John Glenn talked about, such as being exposed to sub-zero temperatures?

"The tests aren't so difficult anymore," Ramon said.