Pages from an astronaut’s diary survived the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, and on Sunday, selected pages went on display at a museum in Jerusalem. Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon kept a personal diary during his time in orbit, and portions of it were found about two months after Columbia broke apart on February 1, 2003 while returning to Earth following the STS-107 mission. “Today was the first day that I felt that I am truly living in space. I have become a man who lives and works in space,” Ramon wrote in an entry on his sixth day in orbit.
37 pages survived the extreme heat of the explosion, as well as the 60 km (37-mile) fall to earth and several days of wet weather before they were found. “It’s almost a miracle that it survived — it’s incredible,” Israel Museum curator Yigal Zalmona said. “There is no rational explanation for how it was recovered when most of the shuttle was not.”
The pages were found in a field just outside of Palestine, Texas. On some pages, the writing was washed out, other pages were tattered and torn, pocked with 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.
Once it had been verified that the pages were relevant to the Columbia debris, the papers were collected and given to Colonel Ramon’s family. Ramon’s wife, Rona, decided to bring the papers to Israel for deciphering the damaged writing and, ultimately, conservation of the torn and tattered pages.
Most of the pages contain personal information which Mrs. Ramon did not wish to make public. “We agreed to do the restoration completely respecting the family’s privacy and the sensitivity about how intimate the document is,” museum director James Snyder said.
The diary took about a year to restore, Zalmona said, and it took police scientists about four more years to decipher the pages. About 80 percent of the text has been deciphered, and the rest remains unreadable, he said.
Two pages will be displayed at the museum. One contains notes written by Ramon, and the other is a copy of the Kiddush prayer, a blessing over wine that Jews recite on the Sabbath. Zalmona said Ramon copied the prayer into his diary so he could recite it on the space shuttle and have the blessing broadcast to Earth.
There is no information available as to where the pages of the diary were situated during reentry, for example if they were in a pocket of Ramon’s spacesuit or in a padded, heat resistant container or simply held under his leg, as one astronaut suggested.
The diary provides no indication Ramon knew anything about potential problems on the shuttle. Columbia’s wing was gashed by a chunk of fuel tank foam insulation at liftoff and broke up just 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. All seven astronauts on board were killed.
The diary is being displayed as part of a larger exhibit of famous documents from Israel’s history, held to mark the country’s 60th anniversary this year.
Sources: Israel Ministry of Public Security, AP article