There's no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying to space. It goes the same for any country, Arab country, whatever -- we are all the same people, we are all human beings and I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people. Astronaut Ilan Ramon (Israel) 04, January 2003.
looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful
and so fragile. Everybody, all of us down there, not
only in Israel, have to keep it clean and good."
Left to right: David Brown, Ilan Ramon, commander Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, pilot William McCool, Michael Anderson, and astronaut Laurel Clark, Jan. 20, 2003.
The tragic loss of the Columbia astronauts on February 1, 2003 should be mourned by all humanity. They died fighting the age old battle of humanity against the elements. In their lives, they tried so hard to represent the very best of all of us. They fought for all of us, and lived and died for a better future for the peoples of the world. A world of peaceful cooperation.
Farewell friends, rest in peace. Others will follow and
will succeed, because you tried.
Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation in Space
- Feb. 5, 2003
By LAUREN GELFOND
A Palestinian and an Israeli student find that politics pale compared to the workings of the cosmos
Tariq Adwan clapped his hands and jumped into the passenger seat of the rented car, smiling. It had been a long day and he was anxious to resume the search for kosher food. As the sun was setting, he buckled up and ran his index finger over the map of Cape Canaveral.
The 19-year-old Palestinian Muslim from Bethlehem does not keep kosher, but his Israeli science partner does, and he was hungry. The two had spent hours driving around that week, and when no kosher restaurants were to be found, they had followed the few Jewish stars on the map to synagogues for advice. The two looked at each other knowingly and burst out laughing. It wasn't a typical Israeli-Palestinian adventure.
Adwan first met Yuval Landau, 29, in mid-January, after the Planetary Society accepted their independent biology proposals on condition that they join forces to load a joint project on the Columbia space shuttle.
After they were flown to Florida on January 14, two days before the shuttle's launch, Adwan identified Landau in the bustling airport from the only telltale sign he could find: Landau was wearing a kippa.
Kalpana "KC" Chawla working in the Spacehab module aboard the Columbia. To the left, above her head, is the ITA CIBX device, containing the GOBBSS experiment of Israel medical student, Yuval Landau, and Palestinian biology student, Tariq Adwan, which she activated on the first day of the mission. [Photo by STS-107 crew, courtesy of NASA. MidEastWeb gratefully acknowledges the cooperation of Dr. David Warmflash of NASA. ]
"Yuval?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. Grinning, they shook hands and embraced. Later they would describe each other as nice guys and brilliant scientists.
"Both are interested citizens of the cosmos, and that goes way beyond politics," says a principle investigator on their experiment, Dr. David Warmflash of NASA's National Astrobiology Institute.
"We were looking for the principles of life, and if you put political issues in this context they seem so small."
Landau, an MD-PhD student in Tel Aviv University's Excellence Program, had never had a Palestinian work or study partner before, or even a Palestinian friend. But the two hit it off from their first telephone and e-mail contacts, speaking to each other in English, primarily about biology. Their experiment would take bacteria into space to see how such microorganisms grow, and how stresses such as cosmic radiation, dryness, and weightlessness affect them. The two wanted to find out if thin layers of microbial cells, known as "biofilms," would form. Bacteria can survive extreme environments by forming biofilms. Since the 1996 discovery of what some scientists believe are fossilized microorganisms embedded in a Martian rock that landed in Antarctica, it has been an open question whether microorganisms can survive interplanetary travel, perhaps as a biofilm.
The Planetary Society's less-than-subtle mandate required that the two work together to choose and lose aspects from their original proposals to create a joint one. Echoing a kind of peace plan, the final project would include concessions, agreed-upon goals and a sharing and division of labor. The fact that their project was studying relationships between foreign organisms was the first coincidence.
"I wasn't surprised to meet an open-minded Palestinian," says Landau. "I understood that most of the problems probably derive from a minority of people, and that is the saddest part, because they have the primary influence. I knew there is a silent majority that thinks and behaves differently."
Still, he says meeting Adwan did affect him. "It is a different kind of learning to get to know a person as a human being."
Adwan had previously been in programs with Jewish Israelis.
"When they told me I was to work with an Israeli, I felt the same as I would have if they had told me I was working with an Arab or an American," he says. "We look at each other as scientists who are curious and enthusiastic about research."
But there was a political aspect, he admits.
"This made it more interesting. You could even say it gave it a beautiful flavor."
Adwan comes from a Bethlehem family that was once involved in Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. Today the father, with the family's blessing, works on joint Israeli-Palestinian education projects - a change in attitude that dates back to a 1991 stay in an Israeli prison.
When Bethlehem University history professor Sami Adwan was arrested that year, three days after the birth of his other son, he was held in military detention for nearly six months without trial or official charges, he says.
Adwan sat day after day in his cell, depressed, until one afternoon a soldier appeared with a form for him to sign. Because it was written in Hebrew, which Adwan can neither read nor speak, he refused to sign. When a second soldier saw the altercation, he looked at the form, and spoke harshly to the first officer.
Though Adwan couldn't understand the words spoken, he experienced a revelation, even before a Hebrew-speaking Arab translated.
"I used to see all Israelis as [the same]," he said. "But I saw this message: two soldiers of the same rank, same uniform, same language, but with totally different points of view about what was appropriate."
Later, alone in his cell, he started to realize that not only were the Palestinians there imprisoned, but so were the Israelis.
"The Israeli guards couldn't leave the prison either. In a way, we were both caged, and I asked myself, who is jailing whom? Maybe we were jailing each other."
When Adwan was released, he went home changed. "I wasn't treated badly, but it was very painful for me to be put in jail on an assumption of suspicion," he said. "But I had a lot of time to contemplate the future, and realized that the only way is for Palestinians and Israelis to see each other as humans and to have sympathy for each other's disasters."
It was Shabbat afternoon, and Landau, now back in Israel, was not answering his phone.
Adwan knew not to phone him on Shabbat but it was an emergency, he figured. From his dormitory room at Misericordia College in the US, he had just heard the news: The shuttle had broken up.
Adwan paced the square room and tried to stop trembling. He stood up and sat down. He flipped between the news stations. He ran to the bathroom a few times, thinking he was going to throw up.
"I was glued to the news for the 16 days of the mission. I was in touch daily with Yuval and with the principle investigators [from NASA and the Israeli Aerospace Institute]," he says. "This relationship to the shuttle became part of my life. The seven astronauts were our heroes, and our hands up in space. I just don't know how to accept that they and all this have just disappeared from the world."
As his hometown of Bethlehem was suffering under military curfew, Adwan was also mourning the death of Israel's first astronaut, a military hero.
"I see him as a scientist, and as scientists our collaborations go beyond political differences," he says. "I am very sad about all the astronauts, but especially about Ramon."
Finally Landau phoned. Sitting down in a chair Adwan pressed the receiver between his head and shoulder, and tapped his stockinged feet quickly on the floor. "Did you hear?" he said before hello.
"If it were possible to give up this experiment and bring Ilan Ramon back to life I would," said Landau, crushed.
"We were both devastated, and shared condolences. It's a very difficult time, but it was good to talk to each other," Adwan says the next day.
"It was emotional and interesting. We came to the conclusion that even though the science part failed, the symbolic part, a result of our collaborative work, still existed." Soon after, Dr. Eran Schenker, director of the Israel Aerospace Medical Institute, reported that the Israeli-Palestinian experiment had just been discovered among the crash debris. Now both students are hoping for a miracle - that the container holding the experiment was not damaged. If so, they will be sent back to help NASA investigators analyze the results.
But if the experiment remains only a memory, all parties involved say they are still connected by shared experiences: grief, the taste of being participants in history, and the goal of changing the world through science.
Cooperation was easy, Landau and Adwan admit, compared to finding kosher food near NASA headquarters, making sense of the cosmos - and dealing with an unthinkable tragedy.