CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Space shuttle Columbia rocketed into orbit with Israel's first astronaut Thursday on a scientific research flight surrounded by unprecedented security _ and with religious and political overtones.

Columbia shot off its oceanside launch pad and into a clear sky at 10:39 a.m. On board were seven astronauts, including Ilan Ramon, a colonel in Israel's air force and a former fighter pilot.

Ramon's wife and their four children and his father and brother were among the approximately 300 Israelis who traveled to Cape Canaveral to cheer him on.

``This is such an exciting time for us ... he makes us so proud,'' Israel's ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, said at a reception for Israelis on Wednesday evening at a heavily guarded hotel. He had this message for Ramon and his six U.S. shuttle crewmates: ``God bless you and may you go in peace. Shalom.''

Security was at an all-time high for the launch, which had been in the planning for years. Fighter jets thundered nearby just before liftoff.

Air Force officials said there were no security breaches.

Earlier in the morning, Ramon and his six U.S. crewmates rode to the pad under heavy police escort. A space center worker waved an Israeli flag as the ``astrovan'' passed in front of the launch control center.

Despite the presence of a large SWAT team, the entire shuttle crew looked relaxed. Ramon waved and gave a thumbs-up.

Ramon's wife, Rona, admitted to some nervousness and said she can't wait for the 16-day mission to end.

``I don't want to talk about fear. We're not talking about fear. I'm sure NASA is doing everything that is possible not to take any risk and any chances,'' she said, adding, ``The most calm and relaxed person is Ilan.''

As has been the custom for every shuttle liftoff since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Air Force patrolled NASA's launch site on the lookout for any stray planes or other intruders. The no-fly zone extended the usual 35 miles, but took effect three hours earlier to accommodate the loading of explosive hydrogen fuel into Columbia.

Offshore, boats were ordered to stay away.

NASA's top security official, former Secret Service agent David Saleeba, said he was prepared to call up even more protection, if necessary. The space agency has been in close touch for months with the Homeland Security Department.

``Our antennas are up more than usual,'' Saleeba said, adding that the space agency was well aware of the additional threat potential posed by Ramon's presence on the crew.

The head of the Israel Space Agency said he was impressed by all the security. When he went to a local restaurant one night this week, he was escorted by two policemen. ``I felt like the prime minister,'' said Aby Har-Even, the agency's director general.

Ramon, 48, the son of a Holocaust survivor, was among the Israeli pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, according to a senior Israeli government official speaking Thursday on condition of anonymity. The Israel Space Agency wanted a military pilot for its first astronaut and, with the Israeli air force's help, picked him for the job in 1997.

Columbia's flight initially was targeted for mid-2001 but was repeatedly delayed, most recently by the grounding of the entire space shuttle fleet last summer. The round-the-clock research mission was bumped from July to January, behind a pair of critical space station construction jobs.

``If there was ever a time to use the phrase 'all good things come to people who wait,' this is the one time,'' launch director Mike Leinbach told the astronauts just before liftoff. ``Good luck and Godspeed.''

Replied shuttle commander Rick Husband: ``The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day here, and we're going to have a great mission.''

It is the first time in three years that NASA was launching a shuttle that was not going to the international space station or working on the Hubble Space Telescope.

One of the primary experiments is sponsored by the Israel Space Agency. Onboard cameras will measure desert dust in the atmosphere to gauge the effect on climate change.

An odd assortment of animals also is aboard Columbia, mostly from student experimenters. The menagerie includes spiders, ants, silkworms, mealworms, carpenter bees, fish embryos and rats.

Altogether, more than 80 experiments from around the world are planned.

Columbia is due back at Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1.

___

On the Net:

NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov

Israel Space Agency: http://beta.most.gov.il