In Memory of Ilan Ramon

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“…out of the strong, something sweet.” Judges 14:14

For many schoolchildren, Ilan Ramon was proof that becoming an astronaut was an attainable dream, even for an Israeli. A year ago, many young eyes were glued to the TV screen as he shared his thoughts and emotions on board the Columbia. It is not surprising, then, that schoolchildren featured prominently in the nationwide events commemorating his passing.

About 100 junior high schools participated in a space competition that was held via the Internet in his honor. The contest, initiated by Israel’s Ministry of Education, was carried out by the National Teacher Center for Science and Technology, which is run by the Weizmann Institute’s Science Teaching Department at the Davidson Institute for Science Education.

Fourteen finalists were challenged to plan either a space colony or a habitat on Mars, while dealing with scientific issues such as creating an artificial atmosphere or a self-sustaining ecosystem. The winners were announced in a science education conference commemorating Ramon, in the presence of his father and brother.

The six students in the winning group, who had suggested two original models for a space colony, were surprised to learn, as they went on stage to shake the hand of Ilan Ramon’s father, that the first prize was a trip to a summer space camp in Turkey. “The students were motivated by their interest in the subject. They did not know that there would be a prize for the winners – and nor did we, early on,” says Dr. Zahava Scherz, director of the National Teacher Center for Science and Technology. The endeavor was voluntary, and the prizes contributed by El Al, Young@Science at the Weizmann Institute and Israel’s Space Agency.

“Even the flower arrangements for the ceremony were given to us free of charge when the florist heard what they were for,” says Scherz. “The competition would have been impossible had we not been located at the Weizmann Institute, where we received active help and advice from numerous scientific and educational experts and enjoyed the continuous involvement of the Institute’s extracurricular science education unit, Young@Science.”

In the days before the ceremony, the students met American astronaut Terry W. Virts, who, arriving to attend the memorial services, expressed a wish to meet students interested in space science. In addition, some students traveled to the Knesset to present their projects before the Knesset Education Committee.

“The students demonstrated a high level of learning,” says Scherz. “They have shown that they are capable of dealing with advanced scientific material and are willing to dedicate hours after school for that purpose.”

Roars of applause mingled with tears as Ilan Ramon’s father, visibly moved, said to the schoolchildren, “Unfortunately, Ilan is not here – but if he were, you can all be sure that he would have heartily applauded you.” And again, as a boy from the Arab city of Nazareth pronounced at the end of his school’s presentation: “Ilan Ramon, we will all continue in your footsteps. May his memory be cherished.”