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Go / No Go :
"The First Israeli in Space" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   Sisu Home Entertainment
Release:   2003
Length:   70 minutes
MSRP:   $29.95
Extras:   As the show was first aired in Israel last year, has English and Hebrew audio tracks.

Heartbreaking and uplifting. Those are the first two words that come to mind when sitting down to watch "The First Israeli In Space," the story of Ilan Ramon's journey to immortality.

The show follows Ramon from Israel, where he's been selected as the nation's first astronaut, to Houston. It opens with Ramon in a shuttle simulator - or it may actually be Columbia, but he's not in a bunny suit, so it's hard to tell - with him talking about what he expects flying in space to be like. He, his wife and every Israeli citizen featured in the film speak in Hebrew, but their words are subtitled in English.

Israel Broadcasting Authority director Noel Weisbrod was given great access to Ramon during training, so if nothing else, the inside look at the Johnson and Kennedy space centers are amazing. Ramon and his wife Rona are interviewed extensively, and he serves as something of a guide throughout the entire process.

Through Weisbrod's camera, we're there with Ramon days before he departs Israel. We go into Ramon's home in Houston, see his kids, attend a gathering of Israelis now living in Texas, and on a tour of the launch pad with his backup, Lt. Col. Itzhak Mayo.

How in-depth is this program? Ramon gives viewers a detailed description of the shuttle's waste containment system. Who knew there were cameras to help an astronaut get positioned just right? Ramon and Mayo seem a bit in awe of Jerry Ross, a seven-flight astronaut with nine EVAs to his credit. Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is interviewed about his talks with President Clinton concerning putting one of his countrymen in space. There is home video footage of the STS-107 crew's survival expedition in the Rockies.

The one criticism of First Israeli could also be perceived as one of its strong suits. Apparently put together during Ramon's four-year training odyssey, there is no mention of the accident that claimed his life until the final seconds of the show. Prof. Giora Shaviv is shown midway through the program, highly critical of the decision to send an Israeli into space. Given what happened, it seemed out of place and somewhat inappropriate. On the other hand, because it was assembled as training progressed, rather than after the fact, the show doesn't get bogged down in heavy-handed memorializing.

Still, at times, knowing what happens in the end, it hurts to watch. Ramon smiles as his son says he's a "smart, talented pilot" and that "he deserves to be an astronaut." His wife talks about her fears, and the dangers of launch. Each of Ramon's crewmates - Rick Husband, Willie McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Mike Anderson - are interviewed, if only briefly. Ramon, sitting in the commander's seat, shows viewers some of the things he will take with him into space - a drawing of the view of Earth from the moon, made by a 14-year-old boy in a concentration camp; a small piece of metal with barbed wire, representing the Holocaust, of which his mother was a survivor; and a small coin, dated 69 A.D.

One of its most poignant moments takes place late in training when Brown helps Ramon with his orange "pumpkin suit." These are two men, two rookies who had never flown in space, preparing for the greatest of journeys and soon they'd be gone.

There's footage of a smiling Ramon in flight, floating through a hatch from one section of Columbia into another. Finally, in the last scene in the program, there's the all-too-familiar shot of Columbia breaking up over Texas, with Houston's Mission Control trying in vain to re-establish contact with Columbia and then the PAO announcement that "Communications with Columbia were lost at about 8 a.m. Central time."

That's it, show's over.

Here's the uplifting part: That wasn't the end. Neither Ramon nor any of his crewmates would've wanted those horrible few minutes on Feb. 1, 2003 to be the end of the space program. At this very minute, crews are working diligently on Discovery, preparing it for NASA's return to flight in March 2005.

Husband is shown in the simulator, describing the launch process... and then the Shuttle's landing. If only Columbia had actually been able to make it back, to make that landing.



Audio/Video: The audio was decent for a documentary, as is the picture, although it was evident brief parts – including the survival expedition and a water landing training sequence – were shot with no better than a home video camera. In a sense, however, this only adds to the insider’s feel of the documentary.

Extras: There are no extras, other than language tracks available in English and Hebrew.

Go/No Go: Go. Now. This disc is absolutely, positively worth its rather hefty price tag for a single-disc release. Watch and treasure it in memory of Ramon and his six crewmates.


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About the reviewer:
Rick Houston is an avid collector of DVDs (he has more than 600). Houston is also a space history enthusiast, so he is sure to not miss a documentary or docudrama.

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