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Time, space and courage

On Ilan Ramon's salvaged diary, the remnants of the Enoch scroll, and the ancient quest to reach beyond our limits
Crew of Space Shuttle Columbia, killed on reentry, February, 1, 2003. (NASA)
Crew of Space Shuttle Columbia, killed on reentry, February, 1, 2003. (NASA)

On Yom HaAtzmaut, the Israel Prize, the highest Israeli civilian honor, was awarded posthumously to Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Rona transformed the painful losses of her husband and son, Assaf, into a source of hope for many people. She became a grief counselor and a motivational speaker who sought to inspire students about space, science, and technology. Sadly, Rona died last December of pancreatic cancer.

The new Israeli airport in Eilat, named for Rona’s husband and their son, Assaf, began operations in January. A project which Rona encouraged will open on May 21 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Titled “Through Time and Space,” it will feature the diary of astronaut Ilan Ramon and the Enoch scroll from the Dead Sea Qumran community. Ilan once wrote of his desire to “write a book moving from the past to the present, and from present backwards.” This exhibit will link an ancient quest for transcendence with contemporary efforts to reach beyond our planet.

What led curators to link the remains of this space diary to the fragments of the Enoch Scroll – copied sometime between 200-150 BCE — one of Judaism’s oldest textual treasures? According to the Genesis narrative (5:21-24), Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, lived less than others described in the period before the Flood. The Torah says, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.”

Because no death was recorded in the Torah, later generations speculated about what happened to Enoch. There are three different books of Enoch, none of which was included in biblical canon. All describe Enoch’s ascent and journey through the heavens. He later came to be seen as an exemplar of transportation, or merkavah, mystics. Enoch might be imagined as if he were the first Jewish space traveler, which is why the Israel Museum thought of pairing the remnant from Qumran with the space diary of Ilan Ramon. Each describes a journey through the cosmos, “one at the dawn of history and one in the modern era.”

The two texts are also fragments, survivors of time and harsh environments. The remnants of the Enoch scroll were hidden in a Judean desert cave for almost 2,000 years until their discovery in the middle of the 20th century. The pages of Ilan Ramon’s space diary were discovered in a Texas field two months after the Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy, having survived both the re-entry explosion and exposure to extensive sun and rain.

Both the Enoch scroll and the Ramon diary were found with the text barely visible. Special techniques were used to stabilize the scroll and reconstruct the writing. Extraordinary measures were taken to prevent deterioration of the pages of the diary and to decipher their meaning.

According to the curators of the exhibit, “the greatest similarity … lies in the tone of these two “astronauts,” who were equally amazed by the sights they beheld and by the profound privilege of witnessing them. Enoch says, “So I saw the vision of the end of everything alone; and none among human beings will see as I have seen” (1 Enoch 19:3). Thousands of years later, Ilan Ramon spoke from space and said, “[This view] is… something… that only a few get to experience.”

Although Enoch was believed to have returned from his heavenly journeys and documented his experiences, Ilan Ramon did not. He and six other astronauts — Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark — perished when their spacecraft, which was on its way back to Earth following a two-week shuttle to outer space, caught fire and crashed February 1, 2003 (29 Shvat).

The Ramon diary survived the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia, a 38-mile fall to Earth and two months of exposure to the weather of a field in San Augustine county, Texas. Suspecting that this was Ilan’s diary, NASA gave the remnants of the cardboard-bound notebook to Canadian astronaut, Steve MacLean, to bring to Rona Ramon. After confirming their authenticity, she sent them back to Israel and the Israeli Air Force called upon the forensics team of the police to help analyze the documents.

I was in the Israel Museum with the paper conservation expert, Michael Maggen of the Museum, and Sharon Brown, the forensics expert of the Israel Police, as they explained the process of their work to representatives of the surviving Columbia families. The first task of the experts of the Israel Museum was to ensure that the papers were stabilized and decontaminated so that they would suffer no further damage.

Pages handwritten in Hebrew were recovered: Six were technical notes made before launch; eight were personal notes, written before liftoff; eight sheets were a diary written during the flight. That diary, written with an astronaut pen, a felt tip pen and in pencil, covers only the first six days of the 16-day mission. “We don’t know whether other pages were destroyed.”

On some pages, the writing was washed out. Some sheets were partially shredded with tiny irregular holes. Some pieces were crumpled into fingernail-sized balls. Other pages were stuck together and had to be delicately separated. Sharon Brown commented, “There is no rational explanation for how it was recovered.”

From the salvaged diary of Ilan Ramon. (Israel Museum)

Scientists used computer image-enhancement technology and infrared light to read the charred and tattered pages and pieced some of them together like jigsaw puzzles. Not everything could be deciphered.

Ramon saw himself as “an emissary of Zionism and the Jewish People.” In anticipation of the mission, he once spoke in my congregation about his hopes for the journey into space. Every astronaut is allowed to take some personal mementos into space. Along with specific Israeli material, Ramon brought with him into space a kiddush cup. One document had some partially preserved words of the Shabbat kiddush, the blessing over wine. The Torah states, “You shall observe my Sabbaths,” which would be accomplished with those sacred words. The verse continues, “and you shall revere my Sanctuary,” which would now be transformed from a ritual centre in the Wilderness of Sinai to the sanctity and holiness of Earth as seen from space.

The astronauts’ families were astonished at the next page showed to us. It had only three Hebrew words. “Bnei Yisrael,” Children of Israel and “Hayam,” The Sea. Despite her hesitancy, the forensic specialist eventually approached Rona Ramon to help understand what it might mean.

Mission dates are set long in advance. The Columbia mission had been scrubbed 13 times. A new date had been selected: January 16, 2003. While planning for the bar mitzvah of Tal, one of their sons, Ilan and Rona went to synagogue in Houston. They were discussing the newly assigned date of the mission and decided to look up the Torah portion that would be read the Shabbat that Ilan would be in space. It talked of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom, including the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and contained the words, “The Children of Israel went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22).

This seemed to be a sign for them. This verse would become the basis of his planned comments about the mission. The child of a Holocaust survivor, Ramon would represent those who lived and planned to take into space remnants from what Ka-Tzetnik called “planet Auschwitz.” As if acting out the Exodus, he would cross the sea of space into an uncharted wilderness. Ilan and Rona were convinced that the mission would go forward as planned.

When the curator told us this, two of the guests began to weep. Believing Christians who study Bible together every week, they had spent the lunch hour asking me questions about Judaism and the Bible. The story of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds was important to all of us. The Bible was a master narrative that had ways of speaking to us and for us through time and space.

To thank the paper conservator and the forensic expert, our host presented them a set of first issue stamps minted to mark the mission of the Columbia. On it was a verse from the Bible. One of the visitors began to cry. Later, she explained that she and her husband had studied this verse the night before the flight. From space, he had repeated to her this sentence from the Book of Joshua. In the memorial service for her husband, their minister had quoted the same words. Now those ancient words were speaking to her again: “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them” (Joshua 1:6).

Whatever challenges lie before us, ancient and sacred words reverberate through time and space to remind us, “Be strong and courageous.”

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch has served congregations in Albany, New York and Toronto. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He serves as a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus. He received a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University.
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