On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003 the phones in emergency centers in the southern United States suddenly started to light up, frantic calls were coming in about an explosion and debris falling from the sky. The debris field stretched for hundreds of miles, covering a path from Louisiana to Texas. Within hours it would be revealed that the explosion was not the result of a jet airplane or terrorist attack, as many initially feared. The nation watched stunned as newscasters interrupted regularly scheduled programming to report the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated upon reentry, claiming the lives of the crew on board.
The crew of STS-107 was unique. One the most diverse shuttle crews to ever explore space, Columbia's team represented a range of religious backgrounds including Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Unitarian Universalist. They were comprised of five men and two women; an Israeli, an African American and an American woman born in India. They were seven individuals united by a common goal to further space exploration, in turn helping us better understand who we are by celebrating where we come from.
Aboard the Columbia was Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to embark on a mission to explore space. Ramon realized the significance of "being the first," and his journey of self-discovery ultimately became a mission to tell the world a powerful story about the resiliency of the human spirit, a legacy for which he is remembered.
If you are a space enthusiast like me, then you know the importance of personal items astronauts carry with them to space. Among the items Ramon took to space on Columbia's mission was a miniature Torah, an artifact that had survived one of the Holocaust's most notorious concentration camps. The scroll had been given to a young boy during a secret bar mitzvah ceremony observed in the pre-dawn hours at Bergen-Belsen. In an unlikely twist of fate, that same young boy and concentration camp survivor, Joachim "Yoya" Joseph, went on to become Israel's lead scientist for the Columbia's mission, as well as a dear friend to Ilan Ramon.
During one particularly dramatic moment in the mission, the miniature Torah hovers in space as Ramon recounts its story to the world live from the flight deck of the Columbia. This simple gesture would serve to honor the hope of a nation and to fulfill a promise made to generations past and future. That Ilan Ramon, a descendent of Holocaust survivors, became the first Israeli astronaut into space, demonstrated to the world how anyone can rise from the depths of hell to the heights of space--and inspire a nation in the process.
The Columbia disaster was an undeniably searing moment in history, but there is so much more to be gained by reflecting on the legacy of the crew than by focusing solely on the tragedy. What emerges is a remarkable story of hope, friendship and enduring faith that serves as a testament to all that is possible when people come together to work for the greater good of mankind.
"Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope" premieres on PBS Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 at 9 pm ET. For local airdates and times, visit this website. Follow @ColumbiaMOH on Twitter and join a virtual viewing party during the premiere by using the hashtag #ColumbiaMOH.