PBS Airs SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: MISSION OF HOPE Tonight
SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: MISSION OF HOPE is the untold inspirational story of Colonel Ilan Ramon, a fighter pilot and son of Holocaust survivors who became the first and only astronaut from Israel, embarking on a mission with the most diverse shuttle crew ever to explore space. Ramon realized the significance of "being the first" and his journey of self-discovery turned into a mission to tell the world a powerful story about the resilience of the human spirit. Although the seven astronauts of the Columbia perished on February 1, 2003, a remarkable story of hope, friendship across cultures, and an enduring faith emerged.
Directed by Daniel Cohen and produced by Christopher G. Cowen with Executive Producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: MISSION OF HOPE is produced by Emmy Award-winning Herzog & Company/HCO and West Street Productions, and presented by Playtone. The film premieres tonight, January 31, 2013 at 9:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the disaster and NASA's annual Day of Remembrance. The film will be followed by an encore broadcast of NOVA "Space Shuttle Disaster" at 10:00 p.m. ET (check local listings), which examines the causes of the tragedy.
"Moving tributes like this film remind us all that spaceflight always carries great risk," NASA Administrator and four-time space shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden said. "But fallen heroes like Ilan were willing to risk the ultimate sacrifice to make important science discoveries and push the envelope of human achievement."
SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: MISSION OF HOPE goes behind the scenes to explore the "mission within the mission" for Ramon, who carried into space a miniature Torah scroll that had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, given to a boy in a secret bar mitzvah observed in the pre-dawn hours in the notorious Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. The bar mitzvah boy grew up to become Israel's lead scientist for the mission, Joachim "Yoya" Joseph. The film follows the scroll's path into Ramon's hands, and the dramatic moment when he tells its story live to the world from the flight deck of Columbia. From the depths of hell to the heights of space, his simple gesture would serve to honor the hope of a nation and to fulfill a promise made to generations past and future.
SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: MISSION OF HOPE took more than seven years to complete, and includes rare drawings from the concentration camp made in secret by a camp inmate, and archival NASA footage of the astronauts as they prepared for their mission. Interviewees include Ilan Ramon's widow, Rona Ramon, and other Columbia crew family members; astronaut Garrett Reisman and other members of NASA's space program; Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean; former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and many others. The film was shot on location throughout the world, from Jerusalem to the Kennedy Space Center to Washington, D.C.
Also included is personal video shot by Dave Brown, one of the Columbia's remarkable crew of men and women who, although from different backgrounds, became a true family, warmly embracing each other and Ramon and his mission. "The story takes you on a journey of the human spirit," says director Daniel Cohen. "It is an extraordinary tale of hope for the future, in The Face of tragedy."
For more information about the film, visit www.pbs.org
Director Daniel Cohen on the making of SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: MISSION OF HOPE
I first learned the story of Ramon and the scroll shortly after the shuttle Columbia's disintegration on re-entry. I was struck by the incredible power and symbolism of Ramon's profound gesture, carrying an artifact from the Holocaust into space. I thought that this was a hero's story, and at the same time, a universal story. It is a story of survival, triumph, faith, and, as Col. Ramon said himself, a story of "what a person can do when they go from the depths of hell, to the heights of space." The crew of the shuttle was the most diverse ever to fly together into space. They represented a shining example of what can be done when people work together with a mission. This is in stark contrast to the place the story began, in a Nazi concentration camp.
My first instinct was to reach out to the person who owned the scroll, Dr. Joachim "Yoya" Joseph, the Israeli scientist working with Col. Ramon for the Columbia mission. Right away Yoya asked, "What can I do to help you tell this story?" It would be a question I would hear again and again from everyone who became involved with the project. I did not realize that my phone conversation with Yoya would lead me down a seven-year path to make the documentary.
Yoya told me how his family was ripped apart by the Holocaust, and how he came to possess the tiny Torah scroll during his time in the concentration camp. It was an amazing twist of fate that he should become a scientist working on a space mission and become friends with Israel's first astronaut.
Soon, I found myself at the Israeli embassy in Washington where General Rani Falk told me that, during the mission, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres had promised the Columbia crew a V.I.P. visit to Israel, and that Ramon's widow, Rona, was about to host the Columbia families on the trip the crew was never able to make. General Falk introduced me to Rona, and she agreed to allow us to go along. She thought that of all the stories about her husband, this was the one he really would want told.
The Israeli trip launched us on our way, and every path took us in a new direction of an unraveling story. I learned why Ramon was chosen for this mission, and what it meant in Israel.
As I talked with the astronauts' families, I learned what a long time they had spent together and how their relationships bloomed. I discovered that crewmember Dave Brown was an aspiring filmmaker and that he was actually making his own documentary about his mission aboard the Columbia. His brother Doug agreed to share the tapes and provided us with unique and intimate moments of the crew to tell their story.
Throughout the development and production of SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: MISSION OF HOPE, The Challenge was how to portray the story as uplifting. Critics kept telling me it was a tragic story - the Columbia accident, the Holocaust. Astronaut Steve MacLean solved the dilemma for me when he carried with him into space a sister scroll in tribute to his friend Ilan Ramon. The scroll rises again. Hope lifts from the depths to the heights.
Yoya did not survive to see the documentary completed. But through Col. Ramon, and now our film, the promise made by a small boy to a dying Rabbi trapped in the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp will always be kept. The story of Bergen-Belsen will always be told. And just as important, the film shows the possibilities that unfold when we work together as the Columbia crew did. This "mission of hope" can carry us into the future.
About the Filmmakers
Director Daniel Cohen's career spans thirty years as a Washington, D.C. broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker whose work has garnered him top production awards ranging from multiple Emmys for outstanding broadcast journalism to six Telly Awards for first responder and safety advocate work. While at NBC's Washington, D.C. station, Cohen also received honors from the Associated Press and other organizations for medical and science reporting, as well as the Ohio State University Journalism award for investigative work.
Producer Christopher G. Cowen won an Emmy in 2011 for producing The History Channel's Gettysburg. Cowen's other producing credits include the acclaimed HBO series ON: Freddie Roach, Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D for IMAX, the HBO documentary David McCullough: Painting with Words.
Photo Courtesy of NASA.