Sharon Brown was one of the many thousands of Israelis who gathered around their television sets back in January 2003 to watch the launch of the space shuttle Columbia which included in its crew the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
Along with her four daughters and her husband, the British-born Brown felt a surge of pride as Ramon was launched into space. "We said the 'Tefilat Haderech (Jewish travel prayer) for him," she recalled.
Little did Brown, a superintendent in the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science, realize that a year later, she would play an integral role in reconstructing the last days of Ramon's life aboard the shuttle.
At the beginning of April that year, less than two months after the Columbia's tragic disintegration which killed all the crew members, the flight diary and notes of Ramon were found in a Texas field. The task of painstakingly restoring the heap of tattered paper, that had been exposed to rain and sun after hurtling 38 miles to Earth, fell to forensics expert Brown.
"After the accident, the Israel Air Force website opened a page where people could send emails to the family, and I wrote saying that I was very sorry, and if there was ever anything I could do. Who would have imagined that five months later, we'd get the diary and I'd be the one to examine it - out of all the people in the world," the modest, yet self-assured Brown told ISRAEL21c last week in her laboratory at the Israel Police National Headquarters.
Using computer image-enhancement technology and infrared light to read the charred and tattered pages, Brown and her staff have managed to piece together some of the pages like a jigsaw puzzles, and reconstruct other pages where there was no discernable text showing to the naked eye.
Pages included a list of topics Ramon planned to talk about during broadcasts from space, a carefully copied down text of the Sabbath kiddush, and the blessing for wine.
Pages included a list of topics Ramon planned to talk about during broadcasts from space, a carefully copied down text of the Sabbath kiddush, the blessing for wine, and notes about technical aspects of the flight. All together, 18 pages handwritten in Hebrew were recovered: Four sheets held Ramon's flight diary; six were technical classroom notes that had been made before launch; and eight were personal notes.
Brown said she was amazed that the metal-ring cardboard-bound notebook had even survived.
"What happened was we got a pile of papers - I imagined they'd be charred, blackened bits of paper - possibly with some light source that you'd be able to seem some letters in Hebrew. Well, they walked in with papers that were white with black handwriting on it - they were a bit tattered and traumatized, but nothing like you'd imaging from the huge explosion that took place 40 miles up in the sky and then being hurtled down to earth - it was truly amazing," she said.
Brown is an early riser, usually arriving at the office at the sprawling Israel Police national headquarters in northern Jerusalem by 7:30 am. After a cup of coffee, she begins her daily caseloads.
"Mostly we deal with identity cards and drivers licenses which are being forged left, right and center. We determine how they were counterfeited, and which methods were used. Most of my work is in white collar crime - forged checks, all sorts of agreements which have been altered," she said.
Her world was turned upside down the day Ramon's diary arrived. After the pages were found in San Antonio County by an Indian tracker, NASA verified that they were from Ramon's diary and handed the pages over to Ramon's widow, Rona. They suggested that they help her find a document examiner in Houston, but she decided to bring it to Israel, which, according to Brown, was the most logical decision since whatever letters were visible were in Hebrew.
"The Israel Air Force unit that investigates accidents has made use of the forensics lab in the past, usually for fiber analysis or the DNA biology lab. There's an open line of communication between us, so when Rona Ramon said that she was bringing back the remains of Ilan's diary, it was brought it here," said Brown.
"I didn't have to volunteer for the assignment - which I would have done. The diary arrived on July 23, 2004, and it was very lucky for me that out of two senior document investigators, one was away on vacation and the other was about to go away. In a way, it was appropriate because I was the one in the department who most identified with the shuttle mission - and was the most devastated when it crashed. Everyone was affected, but I voiced it more than the others," she said.
Brown's first task was to ensure that the papers suffered no further damage, so an expert from the Israel Museum's paper conservation lab was consulted, and the papers were quarantined for two weeks to kill off any microorganisms that could have attached themselves to the papers and were attacking them.
"Once we started to examine the papers, we saw that they could split into three categories. On eight pages, you could see the writing clearly; it hadn't been washed out. The pages were curled up and tattered, and it was like working on a jigsaw puzzle - putting the fragments back into place. Just to know where to orient the fragments, I had to try every single permutation and combination. It took a few weeks to put the puzzle of those eight pages back together," said Brown.
Once completed, Brown photographed the pages and sent them to Rona Ramon who was back in Houston at the time.
One of the pages contained the handwritten Sabbath prayer of the wine - the Kiddush - which Ramon had written out in order to be the first Jew to recite the blessing in space. Brown said that because of her religious background, she was able to piece together the scattered letters that remain on the page.
"When I speak about the diary to a non-religious audience and I say 'I found this word, this word, and this word - what could this document be?' They usually don't know, but when I ask the question to a religious audience, they answer right away - 'it's the Kiddush.' "
The second category of pages found consisted of six that were totally washed out - barely any traces of writing were visible whatsoever.
"For those, we used our VSC - video spectral comparator. It has all the different light sources from UV to IR - a set of filters that can discover things the naked eye can't pick up. With the right combination, I was able to make out the writing on these pages, and wrote down what I could see on the screen. Those six pages were technical notes Ilan wrote in the classroom - things like how to operate units, batteries and microphone, and what kind pills you can take in space if you have a backache," said Brown.
The final category consisted of eight more pages that were also totally washed out, and that the VSC was unable to shed proverbial light on.
"I spent a whole week trying every combination of light source, and at the end managed to only get eight random letters off the page. I gave the page to one of our senior photographers in the photography lab; in the past we've had cases where we've used Photoshop for all sorts of things and managed to get good results.
" 'Can you work your magic?' I asked. He called back a few hours later and told me to come to the lab. I saw something on the screen and thought he must be working on something else.
'Well, where is it?' I asked, and he said there on the screen. It was a full page of writing. It really was like magic."
'I want you to know that this is my most private possession.'
Brown said she took the reconstruction process very seriously, and was well aware of the emotional, human element to it.
"When Rona brought in the diary, she told me 'I want you to know that this is my most private possession.' She didn't know what the content was, but didn't want it spread around.
"At first I had the idea of looking without seeing - of trying to deal with it without getting into it and reading any private sections. But I realized soon enough it was the exact opposite of what we had to do. I had to become totally familiarized with his handwriting - and to know as many variations as I could of every letter he wrote. Then I had to get deep into the actual content because it was so fragmented," she said.
It was the biggest challenge of Brown's career, who studied chemistry at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and received her master's degree there. Since working on the project, she's been invited to lecture on the Ramon findings at conferences of American forensics scientists and question document examiners in Memphis, Tennessee, and in New Orleans, Louisiana.
"It went over very well, and was very interesting to them, having three different types of reactions to work on and a whole, almost magical, method of getting something that's almost totally erased and restoring it," she said.
Today, the restored remains of Ilan Ramon's diary are housed in the Document Conservation department at the Israel Museum, awaiting Rona Ramon's decision on whether to display them publicly.
Brown is still working on the last two pages of the elusive third set of pages, and when that's finished, she'll continue her everyday work of inspecting forged documents and agreements. But she'll never forget the job she had piecing together that last thoughts that the Israeli space legend put to paper.
Reprinted with permission from www.israel21c.org