Once again, Temple Beth El in Williamsburg, under the leadership of Rabbi David Katz, will be the site of a unique program in the framework of its Sunday Lecture Series.
In the past, such high-profile individuals as retired four-star Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Dr. Gabriel Koz, former medical director of Eastern State Hospital, and Dr. Joel S. Levine, who for 41 years worked at NASA and is an internationally recognized expert on Mars, gave lectures at the Temple.
Dr. Levine returns to the podium at the Temple once again, not to talk about Mars, but about how NASA technology helped The National Archives in Washington, D.C., preserve the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
According to the introduction note on the lecture, in 1998 The National Archives contacted Dr. Levine, then a NASA senior research scientist, to ask him to provide assistance in solving a problem: the appearance of tiny white spots — more as time passed — in the encasements holding the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, collectively called “The Charters of Freedom.”
At Levine’s request, NASA agreed to assist the National Archives on this research. The solution to the problem was a real-life detective story.
Using technology originally developed to measure minute amounts of gases in the atmosphere of Earth and Mars, the NASA team identified the origin of the tiny white spots on the historic documents. Subsequently, Archives staff corrected the problem leading to the formation of the white spots.
During the 50th birthday celebration of NASA, the research conducted to preserve “The Charters of Freedom” was cited as one of NASA’s most significant 50 accomplishments.
The selection of Dr. Levine to lead the research team to solve the mystery is a remarkable story in itself. He was interviewed by Ted Koppel on “Nightline” about how he found, captured and analyzed air from hermetically sealed, 17th-century lead coffins found buried under the chapel of historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland in a search for pre-industrial air.
“The Charters of Freedom,” documents were sealed in their cases in 1951. The air was sucked out and helium was pumped in. Helium was used because it is an inert gas, meaning it wouldn‘t corrode the parchment. Some water vapor was added to the sealed cases to prevent the parchment the documents are written on — which is made from animal skin — from drying out and falling apart.
Levine explained that the NASA team needed to determine whether the cases were still filled with helium and the relative humidity was still in the desired range.
After various sophisticated tests, a laser spectroscopy device revealed that the helium atmosphere remained constant, the humidity, however, increased. It turned out that over 50 years the backing paper under the documents had released a small amount of water vapor it had stored up. Once the paper released its water vapor, the glass covering the encasements leached an alkaline material that crystallized on the surface.
The mystery solved, Dr. Levine said, The National Archives set out to find a new way to store and display the famous documents. The new cases use argon instead of helium. Sensors to measure the humidity were also built into the casing.
Dr. Levine, who now serves as research professor of applied science at the College of William and Mary and acts as co-chair of NASA Human Exploration of Mars Science Analysis Group, mainly talks about Mars in his public appearances.
However, he doesn’t need much encouragement to talk about how NASA helped to preserve “The Charters of Freedom.” He tells it as a fascinating detective story.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.