Ilan Ramon, 48, a payload specialist aboard the shuttle Columbia -- and the first Israeli astronaut -- was a colonel in the Israeli air force.
He was selected to train at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1998.
"It's very, very peculiar to be the first Israeli up in space, especially because of my background, but my background is kind of a symbol of a lot of other Israelis' background," Ramon said in a pre-launch interview.
"My mother is a Holocaust survivor. My father fought for the independence of Israel, not so long ago. I'm kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for is becoming true."
He carried with him into space a drawing of Earth by a boy who died in the Holocaust. Fourteen-year-old Petr Ginz, a Czech boy who lived in the Theresienstadt ghetto before being transferred to Auschwitz death camp, drew from his imagination a moon landscape in black and white with Earth in the background.
"When talking to Holocaust survivors and you tell them that you're going to be in space as an Israeli astronaut, they look at you as a dream that they could have never dreamed of. It's very exciting for me to be able to fulfill their dream that they wouldn't dare to dream," Ramon said.
Prior to being selected by NASA, Ramon was assigned as head of the Department of Operational Requirement for Weapon Development and Acquisition in the Israeli air force in 1994. He also served as head of the Aircraft Branch in the Operations as well as squadron commander, F-16 Squadron, in Israel.
Ramon had accumulated over 3,000 flight hours on the A-4, Mirage III-C, and F-4, and over 1,000 flight hours on the F-16 aircraft. In 1980 he was one of Israel's first 10 pilots chosen to fly the F-16, and the next year was the youngest of eight who flew undetected over Iraqi airspace to destroy a nuclear reactor being built near Iraq's capital Baghdad.
In 1982 Ramon was involved in a mid-air collision during fighter training. Both he and the other pilot bailed out of their craft without a scratch, but he later characterized it as "a difficult experience" nonetheless.
"On one hand I was happy everyone was healthy and well. On the other hand, you find yourself wondering about life and how lucky you are," he said, according to an Israeli Air Force magazine.
He also served in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982.
Ramon left the military to study electronics and computer engineering, earning his degree from the University of Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1987. Afterwards he returned to service, however, saying he couldn't think of a more interesting job for him than in the military -- particularly high-tech armament, his field of specialty.
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Ramon was married and has four children. His parents reside in Beer Sheva, Israel.
On Columbia, Ramon was in charge of experiments that comprised the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment, a camera to image and measure small dust particles in the atmosphere over the Mediterranean Sea and the Saharan coast of the Atlantic.
(Editors: UPI photo WAX2003020117 available)