Monday, January 28, 2013

Ilan Ramon’s Mission: Space Shuttle Columbia

Ilan Ramon was the Yoni Netanyahu of his generation.  A charismatic military officer, he planned and led the daring 1981 bombing raid on Iraq’s nearly complete nuclear reactor.  The son of Holocaust survivors, when chosen to be the first Israeli astronaut, he hoped to use the mission to bring a remarkable true story to the world’s attention.  Unfortunately though, he was assigned to Columbia’s tragic final 2003 flight.  Daniel Cohen documents the man and the history that inspired him in Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope (promo here), which airs this Thursday on PBS stations nationwide.

Ramon was an ace F-16 pilot.  He half expected not to survive the then controversial Operation Opera.  Yet, all planes came back unscathed in what quickly came to be considered the most successful Israeli military operation ever.  At the time, it was duly, if reluctantly, condemned by the U.S. government.  Twenty-two years later, he became the only non-American citizen to win the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

As if the Columbia disaster was not heavy enough, Mission of Hope is also profoundly concerned with the Holocaust.  While Ramon was just one generation removed, Joachim “Yoja” Joseph, the senior scientist supervising Israel’s Columbia experiments, had survived Bergen-Belsen as young boy.  Thanks to a courageous Rabbi, Joseph had his bar mitzvah in the camp with the aid of a tiny Torah.  Knowing his time was short, the Rabbi gave the boy that Torah for safe keeping.  Decades later Ramon carried it into space, along with several other surviving concentration camp artifacts.

Although Ramon’s story would seem to be one of bitter irony, Cohen wisely emphasizes the inspirational aspects of his life and mission.  Featuring interviews with his widow and commanding officers, as well as candid video footage shot by his Columbia mission comrade Dave Brown, Hope conveys a strong personal sense of Ramon as an individual.  To his credit, Cohen is not afraid of idealism or patriotism.  Hope reminds viewers of the pride and optimism inspired by the early days of the space program.  Appropriately, Cohen does not delve into the causes of the disaster.  There are better venues to explore such issues.  Instead, he focuses on Ramon and his crewmates.

It is hard to imagine anyone watching Hope without getting a catch in their throats.  Frankly, it is rather baffling the film has not screened extensively on the festival circuit before its PBS debut, especially considering Hollywood space booster Tom Hanks’ role as executive producer.  Educational and unexpectedly uplifting, Mission of Hope is enthusiastically recommended for general audiences when its screens this Thursday (1/31) on most PBS outlets, with a rebroadcast of Nova’s Space Shuttle Disaster scheduled to follow.