A handwritten prayer from Ilan Ramon recalls Columbia disintegration

new orleans | It wasn’t the personal diary written by Israel’s first astronaut in space that the police expert who pieced it back together found most moving, but a prayer he had written out before liftoff.

Ilan Ramon was secular. He worked on the Sabbath. And, though he had meant to recite the Kiddush, the Sabbath blessing for wine, on his first Friday evening in space, it had been crowded out of his schedule. In a TV interview, he said he would say Kiddush the following Friday, the 16-day mission’s final evening in space.

Israeli Police document expert Sharon Brown discovered that he had brought with him a painstaking copy to ensure that he said it flawlessly.

The Kiddush has a one-sentence weekday form. “If he had just said that one, the world would have said, `Wow! What an example!”‘ she said.

But Ramon had copied out the long Sabbath form, “punctuated so he would not miss even the slightest word — even the simple ones he must have known since childhood as a native speaker of Hebrew,” Brown said. “That just reduced me to tears.”

It showed his utter dedication and thoroughness, she said. “He was not an observant Jew,” she told the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. “But he saw himself in space as a representative of every Jew.”

Brown had been stunned to learn that even part of Ramon’s loose-leaf notebook had been found. It was paper — yet it had survived the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia, the minus-140-degree Fahrenheit temperature it was thrown into, a 38-mile fall through Earth’s atmosphere, and two months out in the rain and sun.

Columbia fell apart and crashed over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. The notebook wasn’t found until April 4 of that year, Brown said.

NASA gave it to Ramon’s widow, Rona Ramon, who asked Israel Police to piece it back together and decipher it.

“I imagined she’d be coming in with charred, blackened bits of paper,” identified as Ramon’s by a few Hebrew letters, said Brown, whose usual work is checking suspect passports and other documents for Israel Police.

It was astounding enough that even one page had survived, been found and identified. But the plastic bag in Rona Ramon’s hands held white pages.

“When I saw the white paper, I was desperate for Rona to hand it to me,” Brown said.

The first four were ripped and torn, with large chunks missing and small jagged holes as if bits of debris had torn through the pages. There were many tiny, crumpled bits. Other pages were relatively intact, but charred at the edges. Any writing had been washed away.

Rona Ramon will decide where the diary — originally a loose-leaf notebook held together by three plastic-covered rings of flexible metal — winds up, Brown said.

She has two pages still undeciphered, working from computer-enhanced scanned pages.

The paper itself is at the Israel Museum for reconstruction and preservation. The pages could be made to look almost new. That won’t happen, Brown said. The holes, charring and other discolorations are part of the story.