Profile of Columbia's Illan Ramon

To his fellow countrymen, the first Israeli in space was a genuine war hero.

A fighter pilot in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, Illan Ramon flew F-16s and F-4s, fought in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Lebanon War in 1982. And in 1981, he took part in the destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak.

The 48-year-old, a colonel in Israel's air force, came from a family of fighters and Holocaust survivors. His father and grandfather had fought together for Israel's statehood. His mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp.

"My background is kind of a symbol of a lot of other Israelis' background," he said in an official preflight interview. "I'm kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for and we've been going through in the last century [or maybe in the last 2,000 years], is becoming true."

Ramon carried with him into space a miniature Torah that a young teenager managed to keep hidden throughout his incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. In a news conference, Ramon emotionally displayed that Torah as symbolizing Jewish survival.

Ramon, married with four children, saw the importance of his work for the young. "For kids, space is inspiring. And whenever you talk about space, everybody, not only kids, even [we] are thrilled." He added that he so loves to fly that when he was selected as an astronaut, "I really jumped almost to space."

He also enjoyed adventures on land, although even there it was a height. He reminisced about a trek in the Himalayas, recalling, "Whenever and wherever you take yourself and hike in nature, … you get to think a lot about: what are we, as a human being doing here? What is important? What is not important? And you change. You change in your way of thinking and your way of life also."

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a statement following the shuttle's loss, called it "a tragic day for the families, and a tragic day for science. … At times like these the hearts of the American and the Israeli nation beat together. We hold hands and pray together."