Four years ago, a miniature Torah, once smuggled out of a Nazi concentration camp, was carried aboard the space shuttle by the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who was the son and grandson of Auschwitz Holocaust survivors. Bits of this tiny Torah were sprinkled all over Palestine from outer space.
Palestine,Texas, that is: the historically resonant name of the Columbia shuttle crash site.
Although security surrounding Columbia's liftoff and landing had been stepped up to avert any terrorists tempted to target an Israeli officer aboard, the flight ended in tragedy because of faulty insulation.
"I'm secular in my background, but I'm going to respect all kinds of Jews all over the world," Ramon had said before the launch, and he ate only kosher meals in orbit and kept the Sabbath. Aside from the cherished mini-Torah, Ramon also had carried a small pencil sketch of a "Moon Landscape" by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy who dreamed of outer space while imprisoned at a concentration camp but did not survive Auschwitz. Tragically, in spite of all the uplifting symbols, all seven Columbia astronauts died upon re-entry because of a malfunction of protective foam which exposed fuel tanks to hyper-temperatures.
Against all odds, a similar tiny Torah did make it back from space, two years later, carried by Steve MacLean, a Canadian astronaut, aboard the shuttle Atlantis.
Sadly, all these cosmic overtones of space flight and exploration now are being cast away.
Awe-struck space explorers are getting shunted aside by three-star generals with earthbound morals and sky-high budgets, and the public sits idly by. It is poignant that Neil Armstrong, the born-again Christian who was the first man to walk on the moon, told an Israeli archaeologist in 1979 that he was far more excited to walk on the same stones in Jerusalem that Jesus had trodden than to take his famous small step onto the lunar landscape.
Suddenly, after a Chinese test blasted apart a defunct weather satellite in orbit on January 11th, some world leaders insist it is time to gird for battle in space. Israeli Air Force Chief Major General Elazar Shkedy was quoted on the Jerusalem Post's front page, expounding on this topic:
“It is hard to imagine fighting a war without these [space-based] assets. Israel will develop its capabilities in space in the coming years as the connection between the military and space is growing. The Americans, Indians and Chinese are all investing huge sums of money in space....Battle in space is on our agenda, whether we want it there or not.”
Meanwhile, the name of the air force has been upgraded to reflect this change: starting this month, it is now designated the Israel Air and Space Command. And there is a growing uneasiness among the military that Tehran aims to target Israeli surveillance satellites as soon as they have the know-how. Izzy despairs that the space race has gone from rhapsodic to rapacious so quickly.