ISRAEL'S SHUTTLE ASTRONAUT WAS ON A SECRET MISSION ON COLUMBIA
by Gordon Thomas
Astronaut Ilon Ramon was conducting secret experiments on the Columbia to discover new ways to beat Saddam's threat to use biological and chemical weapons against Israel.
For most of his 16 days on board the Columbia, he had been using cameras linked directly to the Israeli Space Agency to study desert dust and wind-drifts emanating from the deserts of Iraq.
The information was fed to the Institute for Biological Research - the ultra-secret establishment that is at the cutting edge of Israel's multi-layered defence system.
The Institute's scientists constantly study how contaminants can drift into Israel from Iraq.
"Ramon's work was regarded as a priority among his fellow astronauts - because of the fear that Saddam will launch a pre-emptive strike against Israel", said an intelligence source in Tel Aviv.
Ramon, 48, was already a hero in Israel because of his role in flying one of the eight F-16 fighters which destroyed Saddam's nuclear reactor in 1981 - the same year Columbia made its first flight.
At the time the plant was ready to go online to produce weapons grade plutonium.
Ramon's task was to send out a signal to fool Iraqi radar that the fighter formation was a commercial Jumbo jet.
After the raid, he said: "It was no big deal".
It was that can-do philosophy which made him not only a born leader, but popular with all his fellow fliers. He had flown his first mission at 18 in the Yom Kippur War against the Egyptians. Later he had commanded Israel's nuclear bomb squadron.
For the past five years, he had been at the NASA training school in Texas preparing for last Saturday's mission.
He went to his death carrying a small pencil drawing titled, Moon Landscape. It had originally been drawn by a 14 year old Jewish boy, Peter Ginz, who had died at Auschwitz.
"For Ramon the flight was a chance to honour in the heavens all the victims of the Holocaust", Ilon's father, Eliezer, said yesterday.
For the scientists at the Biological Research Institute, to the very end his work proved invaluable.
Within its laboratories and workshops are manufactured a wide range of chemical and biological weapons. The Institute's chemists - some of whom once worked for the Soviet KGB or East German Stasi intelligence service - create the Institute's current research programs.
Founded in 1952 in a small concrete bunker, today the Institute sprawls over ten acres. The fruit trees have long gone, replaced by a high concrete wall topped with sensors. Armed guards patrol the perimeter. Long ago, the Institute disappeared from public scrutiny. Its exact address in the suburbs of Nes Ziona has been removed from the Tel Aviv telephone book. Its location is erased from all maps of the area. No aircraft is allowed to over-fly the area.
Only Dimona in the Negev Desert is surrounded by more secrecy. In the classified directory of the Israeli Defence Force, the Institute is only listed as "providing services to the defence Ministry". Like Dimona, many of the Institute's research and development laboratories are concealed deep underground. Housed there are the biochemists and genetic scientists with their bottled agents of death: toxins that can create crippling food poisoning and lead to death; the even more virulent Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis and anthrax.
In other laboratories, reached through air locks, scientists work with a variety of nerve agents: choking agents, blood agents, blister agents. These include Tabun, virtually odourless and invisible when dispensed in aerosol or vapour form. Soman, the last of the Nazi nerve gases to be discovered, is also invisible in vapour form but has a slightly fruity odour. The range of blister agents include chlorine, phosgene, and diphosgene which smells of new-mown grass. The blood agents include those with a cyanide base. The blister agents are based upon those first used in World War I.
Outwardly featureless, with few windows in its dun-coloured concrete walls, the Institute's interior has state-of-the-art security. Code words and visual identification control access to each area. Guards patrol the corridors. Bomb-proof sliding doors can only be opened by swipe cards whose codes are changed every day.
All employees undergo health checks every month. All have been subject to intense screening. Their families have also undergone similar checks.
Within the Institute is a special department that creates lethal toxic weapons for the use of Mossad to carry out its state-approved mandate to kill without trial the enemies of Israel. Over the years, at least six workers at the plant have died, but the cause of their deaths is protected by Israel's strict military censorship.
The first crack in that security curtain has come from a former Mossad officer, Victor Ostrovsky. He claims "we all knew that a prisoner brought to the Institute would never get out alive. PLO infiltrators were used as guinea pigs. They could make sure the weapons the scientists were developing worked properly and make them even more efficient".
Israel has so far issued no denial of these allegations.