A small heap of paper that survived the fiery disintegration of space shuttle Columbia, a 38-mile fall to Earth and two months of exposure to rain and sun in a Texas field has been painstakingly restored by forensic scientists, yielding the flight diary and notes of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Scientists used computer image-enhancement technology and infrared light to read the charred and tattered pages and pieced some of them together like jigsaw puzzles.
Not everything could be deciphered. But Sharon Brown, the Israeli police document examiner who pieced the material together, said she was amazed that the metal-ring cardboard-bound notebook had even survived.
“You know what a lit match could do to that pile of papers,” she said this week at a convention in New Orleans of forensic scientists.
Text of a Sabbath blessing
She would not disclose any personal observations by the astronaut, one of the seven crewmen killed when the shuttle broke apart in February 2003. But the pages included a list of topics Ramon planned to talk about during broadcasts from space, and the carefully copied-down text of the Sabbath kiddush, the blessing for wine.
All together, 18 pages handwritten in Hebrew were recovered: Four sheets held Ramon’s diary during the flight; six were technical classroom notes that had been made before launch; and eight were personal notes, also written before liftoff.
On some pages, the writing was washed out. Some sheets were tattered and torn, pocked with tiny irregular holes as if debris had ripped through them. Pieces were twisted into tightly crumpled wads smaller than a fingernail. Some pages were stuck tightly together and had to be delicately pried apart.
Brown said she had been asked if she was afraid she would destroy the shreds by opening them up. “I said, ‘You’re right. But if I do nothing, we’ll lose it all,”’ she recalled.
Papers found two months after disaster
Ramon, an Israeli war hero, was his country’s first astronaut. An Indian tracker found the papers two months after the shuttle disaster. Ramon’s widow, Rona, asked Israeli police to find out what he had written. After 1½ years, Brown still has two pages of writing she has not been able to decipher.
On one section where the writing had been washed out by rain, neither infrared nor ultraviolet light was any help. Brown took the pages to a colleague who scanned them into a computer and processed them with photo-editing software, using techniques to enhance contrast and separate the writing from the background.
The diary, written in black ink and pencil, covers only the first six days of the 16-day mission. “We don’t know whether he just stopped writing, or ran out of paper, or other pages were destroyed,” Brown said.
She said that because the notebook was the personal property of Ramon’s widow, she tried to piece it together without actually reading it, as if it were a puzzle in a language she had never seen.
“But very soon, I realized that was exactly the opposite of what I had to do,” Brown said. She said she could not piece it together without understanding it.