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Ilan Ramon
Israels First Astronaut

Israel's first astronaut, Shuttle Columbia payload specialist Ilan Ramon, was praised Saturday as a symbol of "excellence and freedom" and mourned by his countrymen as "the best we could offer."

Ramon, 48, a career military man, was the pilot who dropped a bomb in 1981 on a nuclear plant under construction in Iraq, destroying it.

President Bush, in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called Ramon one "brave Israeli citizen" and said his death was "tragic," a spokesman for Sharon said.

"This is a tragic day for the families of the astronauts, and a tragic day for science," Bush said.

Last month, in an interview with the daily Ma'ariv, Ramon said: "The chances an accident would happen in space are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I'm not concerned at all ... I'm sorry, but I'm not afraid."

He added, "In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else. The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup."

nftyphreak -2/1/2003
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