Israeli astonaut’s ‘miracle’ diary that fell to Earth moves to national library

Ilan Ramon was killed when the Columbia’s heat shield failed as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere in 2003


Ramon's diary as it was discovered on the ground in Texas (Photo: National Library of Israel)

Picking through a muddy field in Texas in April 2003, the search team was shocked to discover 37 pages of neat Hebrew script scattered across the ground.

Two months earlier and tens of thousands feet above, the Space Shuttle Columbia had broken apart as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere when burning hot gases forced their way through its heat shield.

Killed immediately alongside six of his colleagues was Ilan Ramon, the first astronaut from the Jewish state.

Over 20 years later, the diary that he wrote in orbit, and which miraculously survived the fall to Earth, has now been transferred to the National Library of Israel where it will be preserved in a secure vault.

Growing up in Beersheba as the son of Holocaust survivors, Ramon had never dreamt that he would one day travel to space. Speaking to the American media before the shuttle took off, he said: “In Israel, when you tell someone, ‘You’re an astronaut,’ it means that they aren’t connected [to reality], so it’s almost a joke.”

After joining the Israeli Air Force as a young man and Hebraizing his surname from Wolfferman to Ramon, Ilan began his training as a fighter pilot. During the Yom Kippur War, he served in the Sinai in an electronic warfare unit, then, in 1981, he was the youngest officer to take part in the operation to destroy Saddam Hussein’s unfinished Osiraq nuclear reactor.

Sixteen years later, the now Colonel Ramon joined Nasa as a payload specialist, responsible for taking a specialised camera into space to study dust. His mission was scheduled for January 2003.

"I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis,” he declared at the time, intent on taking symbols of Jewish survival on his shuttle. The first Israeli to slip the surly bonds of Earth would carry with him a minute Torah scroll given to him by a Bergen Belsen survivor, an artist's barbed wire mezuzah, and a drawing sketched by Peter Ginz, a Czechoslovak boy killed at Auschwitz.

The diary Ramon wrote for the first six days of his voyage details the details of his everyday life interspersed with his thoughts about the world below.

Until the moment the engines were ignited, he wrote, he still doubted that the shuttle would really take off

“In the last few days of our isolation in the Cape… in those days we all already felt that [this was] real, and yet – we didn’t believe it.”

On day six, Ramon continued: “Today was perhaps the first day that I truly felt like I was really ‘living’ in space.

“I’ve turned into a man who lives and works in space. Like in the movies. We get up in the morning with some light levitation and we roll into the ‘family room’.

“Brush my teeth, wash my face, and then go to work. A little coffee. Some snacks on the way, off to the lab…a press conference with the Prime Minister, and then immediately back to work, observing the ozone layer.”

Later on, Ramon reflected: “From our perspective here in space, we look at you and see a world without borders, full of peace and splendour.

“Our hearts carry a prayer that all humanity as one can imagine the world as it appears to us, without borders, and can strive to live together in peace.”

Despite living a secular life on Earth, in orbit the Jewish astronaut felt a duty to his family’s religious traditions. Zvi Konikov, a rabbi based near Florida’s space station, recalled later that Ramon had asked him before takeoff for advice on how to observe Shabbat in orbit with multiple sunsets a day.

Ramon also requested kosher food to eat onboard, and had written down the kiddush in his diary in preparation for broadcasting the prayer live from space.

In its final pages, Ramon wrote to his family that he could not wait until he could see them again.

"Today was the first day that I felt that I am truly living in space,” he said. “I have become a man who lives and works in space.”

Days later he would be dead. As the Columbia reentered Earth’s atmosphere and began to descend, hot air passed through the shuttle’s thermal protection system and began melting the craft’s aluminium body, eventually causing the cabin to depressurise and killing the crew inside.

Lighter than almost anything else on board, however, the pages of Ramon’s diary did not burn, but glided to the ground below. Carried softly by the wind from the damaged spacecraft, the Jewish astronaut's final messages to the world were to survive with remarkably little damage.

"The diary survived extreme heat in the explosion, extreme atmospheric cold, and then was attacked by microorganisms and insects,” Yigal Zalmona, an Israeli museum curator who later examined its remains, said. “It's almost a miracle that it survived – it's incredible. There is no rational explanation for how it was recovered when most of the shuttle was not."

The text was soon shipped to the Israel Museum to be restored and preserved. Using techniques developed by police forensic experts, researchers compared the ink splotches left on some pages to samples of Ramon’s handwriting and reconstructed his words.

Now, over 20 years later, the diary is due to move on to Israel’s national library where curators hope it could soon be on display to the public.

“Later, after the diary goes through additional conservation processes at the Library, we will consider presenting it to the general public as part of the Library’s permanent exhibition,” Marcela Szekely, the head of the library’s conservation and restoration department said.

“In the meantime, it is being kept in good company here. It ‘lives’ in the same room as the writings of Newton and Maimonides.”

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the library’s board, said she felt “privileged” to be entrusted with safeguarding the artefact and that the institution wanted “to honour the memory of this man who created it, a hero of Israel and the Jewish people, now and for future generations."

For Ramon’s family, however, his posthumous fame has been bittersweet.

In an interview recorded for Israel’s Channel 10 before he left for space but that was only aired years later, his son, Assaf Ramon, said: “At home, you don’t think of him as if he’s Israel’s first astronaut. He’s that too, but he’s my father.”

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