A Jewish Legacy In Space: Honoring Col. Ilan Ramon z”l

A Jewish Legacy In Space: Honoring Col. Ilan Ramon z”l

On January 16th, 2003, NASA’s space shuttle Columbia launched into space, with seven astronauts onboard including Israel’s first astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon z”l. 

I remember standing in front of our TV and saying Tefillat Haderech – the traveler’s prayer – as the shuttle launched into space.

Their 16-day flight was smooth sailing, until its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1st, when Columbia disintegrated into huge balls of fire streaking across the US sky.

A few days after the tragedy, the Israel Air Force opened an online site for people to leave their condolence messages, and I wrote, “If there is ever anything I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask.” Little was I to know that from the debris of the shuttle, I would have the z’chut – the privilege – to work on what would become the most inspiring case of my 31-year career.

The reason for the loss of the shuttle, and all seven astronauts on board, was not understood at first, but after lengthy investigations, it was found that protective foam falling off from the central fuel tank on takeoff had impacted on the shuttle, dislodging some heat-resistant tiles that protected it from elevated temperatures that it is exposed to on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

During the weeks and months of investigation, 20,000 volunteers walked the length and breadth of Texas looking to collect debris that had originated in the shuttle. On April 4th 2003, a Native American tracker found a small pile of fragile papers while walking through an open field in San Augustine County, Texas. The papers were retrieved by NASA and found to be the remains of Col. Ilan Ramon’s crew notebook, with visible remnants of Hebrew handwriting among them.

The papers were handed over to Ramon’s widow, Rona Ramon (z”l), who decided that they should be sent “home” to Israel for further investigation. They were subsequently received at the Questioned Documents Laboratory of the Israel Police’s Division of Investigation and Forensic Science, where they “landed” on my desk.

The fragile pile of papers was found to contain three groups of pages: 

One was Col. Ramon’s personal diary written in space. These pages were tattered and torn, but the writing on them was visible and they could be pieced together like a puzzle. 

The second group contained six “blank” pages, but using optical instrumentation, the writing on these pages was visualized and found to contain technical notes, written in class during training for the mission. They included notes on how to operate certain functions on the shuttle, which medication can be taken in space, and protocols for emergency procedures.

The third group of eight pages were also “blank” to the naked eye, but using digital software the writing on them was visualized and found to contain personal notes that Col. Ramon had prepared to talk about from space. These topics pertained to items that Ramon took with him aboard the Columbia, many of which originated in the darkest days of the Holocaust and were going to be displayed in a new light after accompanying Israel’s first astronaut into space, and back again. The pages also contained a full page of Friday night kiddush, written in longhand, as Ramon wanted to be the first Jew in space to recite kiddush for Shabbat, as well as a reference to parshat hashavua – the portion of the week – and other content.

It took approximately six months to piece together Ilan Ramon’s crew notebook, to visualize the writing on the seemingly blank pages, and to decipher them once the writing was actually visualized.

The timing of this case was especially poignant for me. In early April 2003, my mother had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. She was aware at the end of July that I had received the remnants of Ilan’s crew notebook for examination and told me that it was a great privilege. It gave her much pride that this was going to be my case, and I am eternally grateful that I could give her some joy in her last few days of consciousness. A week later, she was admitted to Sha’are Zedek Hospital, where she was intubated for the next 10 weeks and passed away on the night of Yom Kippur. The most amazing coincidence is that my mother’s name was Colomba – she was born in the 1920’s in Italy, where the local rule was that babies had to be given an Italian name, and not a Hebrew or Yiddish name. She was named in memory of her grandmother “Taubeh”, which is a dove in Yiddish, and so her name was translated into the Italian equivalent for dove, Colomba, the same source for the name of the space shuttle Columbia (named for the constellation Colomba that has seven stars – a star for each of the seven astronauts on board).

I found myself working on my saddest case, at the saddest personal time of my life – both bound by the uncommon name Colomba, yet knowing that the case held so much potential and meaning for Ilan’s family and our country that was also so beloved to my mother. This coincidental sequence of events has led me to believe that things don’t happen by chance. Perhaps we understand at the time why they happened and for what purpose, and perhaps we only understand years down the line, but for me it will forever be a chessed – a Divine kindness that I will always cherish. 

The actual pages of the crew notebook are stored at the Israel Museum’s Paper Conservation Lab, where they are kept under optimal conditions of humidity, temperature and security, and a facsimile is available for purchase at the Museum gift shop.

Unfortunately, the Ramon family has suffered unbearable loss over the years –  starting with Ilan – but the miraculous discovery of his crew notebook and its contents provide an unequaled opportunity for his thoughts and vision to live on.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. The Ilan Ramon Memorial Lecture was held under the auspices of Shir Hadash on January 30, 2023, the eve of 20th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Sharon Brown, a forensic scientist, was Chief Superintendent of the Division of Identification and Forensic Science [DIFS] of the Israel Police for 31 years).

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