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Solace on Vail’s slopes

The ski trip to Vail for Israeli Rona Ramon and her four children was meant as an escape from the terror and tragedy of the real world. But even a brilliant, blue-sky day and perfect spring snow could barely keep the pain at bay.”In Israel, it’s the final countdown for the war in Iraq; it’s a little bit crazy and we’re getting ready for this,” Ramon said from the sun-splashed deck of a private cabin at the bottom of Game Creek Bowl on Saturday, March 15, the day after President Bush announced a “roadmap to peace” in the Middle East.”More than anything, we need hope in Israel for something to get better, to be better, for the sake of our kids,” Ramon says, two of her four children, dressed in ski gear, looking on. “We all want to live our life peacefully; that’s the main goal for all Israelis. We’ll get there. We have to. This is our future.”But Ramon knows all too well that the price of peace and progress is often enormous human sacrifice. Long before the first Gulf War, her husband was part of a daring Israeli aerial assault on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility, successfully taking it out of action in 1981. He survived that mission and many more as a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force.But just last month, as the first Israeli to venture into space, Ramon’s husband, Ilan, was killed reentering the atmosphere aboard the space shuttle Columbia.”Skiing was Ilan’s thing. This was his hobby; the only place he would show off. He liked it very much,” says Ramon, whose husband and a high school friend had planned the trip to Vail to celebrate a successful shuttle mission. That same friend convinced Rona she and the children should still come to Vail to celebrate Ilan’s life.”For me, every turn Ilan was with me, and the sun was shining just because he was with us,” Ramon says of the five days her family spent as a guest of Vail Resorts, playing on the slopes of Vail and staying in another friend’s home on Beaver Dam Road. “Lucky for us, with a little bit of help from our friends, we pulled all of this together, and it’s just great to see these kids smiling “Ramon and her family have lived in the Houston area since Ilan first began training for the shuttle program in 1998, but someday she contemplates a return to Israel, which she says will always be her first home. In the meantime, her support system the tight-knit NASA family is in Houston, where the investigation into the Feb. 1 Columbia crash unfolds with new revelations virtually every day.Ramon unequivocally supports the space program and insists it must go on, but she is already weary of the second guessing and finger-pointing as the crash probe heats up.”I’m trying to talk about and deal with whatever helps us to deal with the tragedy, and all the speculation and all the suspicions and all the investigations, it just takes energy that is not useful,” she says. “I’m trying to get updated, but just to get the bottom line.”Garrett Reisman, a member of the astronaut class of ’98 who hopes to fly on his first shuttle mission in the next couple of years, is a skier and snowboarder who volunteered to be part of the Ramon family’s support group in the wake of the accident. Reisman trained with Ilan Ramon, and the two experienced zero gravity for the first time together in a plummeting KC-135 “Vomit Comet.” For obvious reasons, he’s a little more interested in all the details of the investigation.”We learned a lot from the Challenger accident (in 1986) and we changed a lot of the way we do business at NASA, and since we’re going to be the next ones strapping into the next rocket, we have a vested interest in making sure that the process is as it should be,” Reisman says. “So we’re following all of that and carefully.”Reisman says the prevailing mood at NASA is a “strong, strong feeling of trying to get back to flight and making sure that we learn the lessons from what happened here and that we make the vehicles safer”In fact, I’ve never heard as much talk about going to Mars as I’ve heard since the accident, because people really just have this tremendous desire to continue the work that these people died for.”Adding the trip to Vail was nearly as therapeutic for him and his wife as it was for the Ramons and Lonnie McCool and her son the family of Columbia pilot Willie McCool who returned home the day before Reisman was quick to credit Vail Resorts.”The kids have been so happy,” Reisman says. “Vail arranged for them to have ski school each day, and every day they all just had big smiles on their faces. It’s been a wonderful distraction and a much-needed one.”As for Rona Ramon, she was equally grateful for the efforts of the ski company and her network of friends in pulling off the perfect diversion, but time has not made things any easier for her.”Harder,” she says with a slow nod, the sadness in her eyes incongruous in such an idyllic setting. “Because you get to miss your spouse so much. We were lucky to be able to say goodbye separately, because he was going to a mission and he just didn’t return.”So you just take it as an everlasting mission. But it’s hard, because you get to miss him more and more, and you realize that this is reality, not just a bad dream.”


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