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By Sharon Brown
On January 16, 2003, NASA's space shuttle Columbia took off for a 16-day mission to conduct a wide range of experiments in space.
Among the seven-person crew was Colonel Ilan Ramon, a veteran Israel Air Force pilot and Israel's first astronaut. His acceptance into the NASA space program generated a great sense of pride in Israel that at the time was heavily burdened by the second intifada, an uprising against the state of Israel. Thousands of people were glued to their television sets to watch the launch that seemed to pass without a hitch. Unfortunately, there was a hitch.
In fact, after the tragic loss of the shuttle and all seven of its crew on reentry into the Earth's atmosphere on February 1, investigators found that a piece of foam that protects the central fuel tank had broken off only 82 seconds after the launch. The foam had impacted on the undercarriage of the shuttle, breaking off several heat-resistant tiles that ultimately lead to the loss of the spacecraft.
NASA went to great lengths to retrieve any material that had originated in the shuttle and managed to find its way back to Earth. Two months after the accident, a pile of papers containing Hebrew handwriting was found strewn in a field in Texas. Once verified that they were indeed part of a NASA Crew Notebook, the papers were given to Rona Ramon, the wife of Ilan Ramon, who decided to have them treated in Israel.
Beginning the Examination
At the end of July 2003, the papers were received for examination at the Questioned Documents Lab of the Israel Police's Division of Identification and Forensic Science. Little did we imagine as we watched those balls of fire falling from the sky that we would be able to contribute some measure of help and support for the family. What were the chances that a few fragile pieces of paper could survive and float down to earth from that great height and heat of the explosion?