Diary Survives 37-Mile Fall To Earth

By: AP
By: AP

(AP) Pages from an Israeli astronaut's diary that survived the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia and a 37-mile fall to earth are going on display this weekend for the first time in Jerusalem.

The diary belonged to Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut and one of seven crew members killed when Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering the atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. Part of the restored diary will be displayed at the Israel Museum beginning Sunday.

A little over two months after the shuttle explosion, NASA searchers found 37 pages from Ramon's diary, wet and crumpled, in a field just outside the U.S. town of Palestine, Texas. The diary survived extreme heat in the explosion, extreme atmospheric cold, and then "was attacked by microorganisms and insects" in the field where it fell, said museum curator Yigal Zalmona.

"It's almost a miracle that it survived - it's incredible," Zalmona said. There is "no rational explanation" for how it was recovered when most of the shuttle was not, he said.

NASA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. space agency returned the diary to Ramon's wife, Rona, who brought it to forensics experts at the Israel Museum and from the Israeli police. The diary took about a year to restore, Zalmona said, and it took police scientists about four more years to decipher the pages. About 80 percent of the text has been deciphered, and the rest remains unreadable, he said.

Two pages will be displayed. One contains notes written by Ramon, and the other is a copy of the Kiddush prayer, a blessing over wine that Jews recite on the Sabbath. Zalmona said Ramon copied the prayer into his diary so he could recite it on the space shuttle and have the blessing broadcast to Earth.

Most of the pages contain personal information which Ramon's wife did not wish to make public, he said.

"We agreed to do the restoration completely respecting the family's privacy and the sensitivity about how intimate the document is," museum director James Snyder said.

The diary provides no indication Ramon knew anything about potential problems on the shuttle. Columbia's wing was gashed by a chunk of fuel tank foam insulation at liftoff and broke up in flames just 16 minutes before it was scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. All seven astronauts on board were killed.

The diary is being displayed as part of a larger exhibit of famous documents from Israel's history, held to mark the country's 60th anniversary this year. Also on display will be Israel's 1948 declaration of independence, the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan and a bloodstained sheet of paper with lyrics to a peace anthem that was carried by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the time of his assassination in 1995.

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