The Human Spirit: Not in heaven

After the Columbia crashed, only one diary was found 5 years ago: Ilan Ramon's.

ilan ramon 248.88 (photo credit: NASA)
ilan ramon 248.88
(photo credit: NASA)
Police Supt. Sharon Landau Brown makes me want to sit down and write a novel. Imagine a comely and graceful religious woman ensconced in the main headquarters of national police headquarters in Jerusalem. On three sides, she's surrounded by machines: half-a-dozen computers, a microscope and a video spectral comparator, which lets her examine documents with ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. The fourth wall holds an alchemist's stock of chemicals. With these tools, London-born Brown - who holds two degrees in chemistry from the Hebrew University - has exposed contracts altered by unscrupulous landlords, passports stolen for human trafficking and identity cards used by terrorists. Brown is the nemesis of Israel's underworld. But the documents I've come to hear about come not from the underbelly of life in the Middle East but from above. Literally out of the sky. FIVE YEARS ago this week, the remains of Ilan Ramon's crew notebook were discovered in a field in Texas. Sharon Brown was charged with the mission of deciphering the pages. On January 16, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was launched into space carrying seven crew members, including Israel's star fighter pilot Ramon. On February 1, the Columbia burst apart 15 minutes before its scheduled landing. Heat-detecting weather radar equipment reported a bright red cloud of debris, scattered mostly over Texas. On February 12, Ramon was buried at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, close to the Ramat David air base, where he served. Far away, in East Texas, thousands of searchers continued to look for parts of the spacecraft. Some 82,500 pieces of smoldering wreckage had fallen to earth. The searchers walked in long lines, an arm's breadth apart, through farmland, forest, bush and swamp. On April 4, two months and three days after the disaster, a Native American tracker came upon a small pile of papers in an open field. Could these ordinary white loose-leaf papers with writing in pencil and black ink have traveled all the way from space? Some of the writing was visible, but it was in a language unfamiliar to the Indian tracker. The writing was Hebrew. Twenty pages of Ilan Ramon's crew notebook. The Columbia was traveling at nine kilometers a second when it disintegrated. The aluminum vaporized. The iron boiled. Only one diary was found: Ramon's. When Rona Ramon, Ilan's widow, brought in the bag with the remains to the Israel Police, Brown was astonished. "I was thinking the remains would be burned, charred and blackened, but I saw that some of the writing was legible." She requested a standard astronaut's notebook from NASA to see what a new one looked like. "It was a paper notebook in a cardboard binding; its survival is incredible," says Brown, shaking her head. "I have no explanation for it." Brown unstuck and opened the curled paper. She unfolded and sorted, piecing together the puzzle. She found a sample of Ramon's distinctive handwriting in an IDF booklet that helped her to compare his handwriting with the fragments in her hands. Brown noticed that he sometimes wrote the Hebrew letter lamed to look like the digit seven. When she'd completed the jigsaw, she passed completed pages to Michael Maggen, a paper expert at the Israel Museum, for proper conservation. Some of the pages seemed totally "washed out," but using the video spectral comparator with which she debunked forged documents, she was able to recover the writing on six pages. At Rona's request, personal material would remain private, but the fighter pilot-turned-astronaut's sensitive descriptions of life in space could go on to posterity. The rest of the surviving pages were too dim and indistinct to read. BROWN CAME up with a new idea. She turned to veteran police photographer Lazer Sin-David to use the computer touch-up program Photoshop on the remaining pages. He scanned and processed the pages using the "burn" and "dodge" functions, and presto! Like magic, faint blurs turned into letters. Here was a long legible list of topics for the public affairs officer - Ramon's comments about the beauty of seeing Earth with no lines marking the borders between countries. He noted his intent to increase scientific research for the betterment of life on Earth. He wanted to say something about employment for the needy, about the Declaration of Independence, a facsimile of which was aboard ship. He wanted to remember to talk about the Torah scroll that had survived the Holocaust and Moon Landscape by Petr Ginz, who had not. Brown figured out the next page from a few scant phrases. Written out was the entire kiddush recited on wine, the Hebrew complete with punctuation so he would get the pronunciation right. "I was a total puddle of tears when I saw that," said Brown. "What a man. He took to heart how he represented all of us." Together, Rona and Ilan had designed his pilot's patch. One of its emblazoned symbols was the Columba, the dove, often associated with the dove of Noah's Ark. The constellation Columba was the source of the shuttle's name Columbia, and it's also the name of Brown's beloved late mother, who escaped from Trieste on the last boat out. "Ilan Ramon saw his mission as the first Israeli astronaut as a mark of the Jewish people moving from the dark of the Holocaust to the light," she said. "And I feel privileged that I could decipher his writing." One page remained a conundrum. Brown could make out three Hebrew words: Bnei Yisrael, the biblical reference to the people of Israel, and hayam, "the sea." The rest were just vague marks on the page. SUDDENLY, A thought struck her. A Torah-observant Jew, she checked her calendar and looked up the week's reading for the space launch. Sure enough, it corresponded to words of the chapter, which talked about the splitting of the Red Sea as the Children of Israel left Egypt. Ilan Ramon had prepared a dvar Torah, a message from the Torah, from space. The Torah portion he'd wanted to mention was B'shalah. It tells the story of our exodus from Egypt and the deliverance through the splitting of the sea - singing with faith and hope. "I imagine Ilan Ramon going up to God and saying he had something to still tell the Jewish people," said Brown. "I picture those papers fluttering down from heaven with a message for all of us." What exactly Ilan Ramon wanted to say to all of us about leaving Egypt will remain forever indecipherable. As the Brown family will do next week, when Sharon and her husband Ian sit around the extended family table for their Pessah Seder, they will pass on the story of the ultimate Jewish voyage out of Egypt to their four daughters. Like all of us, they will search for the message behind the words of the Haggada. They'll be eating at the home of one of Supt. Brown's sisters. She's an explosives expert. But that's a different story.