Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon is due to liftoff in the space shuttle Columbia on Thursday, becoming Israel's first astronaut and promising his countrymen a surprise.
Excitement over the event was running high in Israel, with radio and television stations planning to cover the liftoff live - a pleasant and proud diversion from the brewing crisis in Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian friction, terrorism and election propaganda.
The usually tight security has reportedly been beefed up due to the presence of an Israeli on board. Some 300 Israeli guests are in Cape Canaveral for the launch of the research mission, scheduled between 10:39 a.m. and 1:09 p.m.
As part of the multi-discipline micro-gravity and Earth Science research mission, the seven-member crew - six Americans and Ramon - will conduct numerous experiments.
Ramon, an air force fighter pilot who has logged more than 4,000 flight hours - 1,000 of them on the F-16 - has been trained as a payload specialist for the 16-day mission.
His main responsibility will be to manage the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment, designed at Tel Aviv University, intended to provide data on how dust particles in the atmosphere affect rainfall, particularly in this arid region.
He will use "a multi-spectral camera that will track dust particles from the sandstorms that blow from the Sahara over the Mediterranean and Middle East," a government statement said.
The 48-year-old father of four has also promised to take a surprise into space for Israelis. He spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Education Minister Limor Livnat by phone on Wednesday, and they wished him success on his mission.
"I am very proud of the first Israeli astronaut. Congratulations to you and the whole crew," Sharon said. "I wish you well and that you enjoy yourself and all return safely."
"I know you are taking some symbolic things into space [including] a book of Psalms which you received from the president and a picture drawn by a boy in the ghetto," Livnat told Ramon.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav sent a microfiche of the Bible the size of a credit card to Ramon to carry aboard on his journey, the president's spokesman said earlier this week.
The picture entitled "Moon Landscape" was drawn by a 14-year-old boy, Peter Ginz, in a Nazi concentration camp before he died in 1944.
Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors, said earlier that his inclusion in the mission was "proof that despite all the horror they went through, we're going forward."
"I have something else that is very meaningful," Ramon told Livnat by telephone, "something symbolic and exciting that I'll show you from space." Ramon said it was a "great privilege" and a "great honor" for him to represent the State of Israel.
It was not clear what his surprise would be but earlier Ramon said he would take Jewish symbols or ritual objects with him on board that pertained to the season in which his mission would be launched.
"I'm going to carry special things... and try to express something about the unity of the Israeli people and the Jewish community. I have some ideas," Ramon said, "but, for the time being, I will keep them deep inside of me. It will be a surprise."
Saturday is the Israeli holiday of Tu B'Shvat, known as the New Year of the Trees. On that day, Israeli schoolchildren usually plant new trees and people eat dried fruits and nuts.
The agreement to send an Israeli astronaut on a NASA mission was reached in 1995, when former President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced that the two countries had agreed "to proceed with space-based experiments in sustainable water use and environmental protection."
Ramon was selected for the mission in 1997 and has trained at NASA since 1998. His mission was to have taken place in 1999, but was postponed a number of times due to technical delays.