Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler examines the glass surface of the encasement containing pages from the Constitution, above. Below, a sheet is palced on specially made paper before being placed in an airtight container in order to test the moisture content.  

Finding freedom at their fingertips

Sage professor involved in efforts to protect nation's most important documents

By ALAN WECHSLER
Staff writer

It is one of the most important documents in the United States, and George Tucker never forgot that as he labored for days a few feet above pages of the U.S. Constitution.

That the 214-year-old document has survived at all is testament to the value that this country has placed on

these pages of parchment. They were continually rolled and unrolled during their early years, to show their words to various founding fathers. They were hidden in an unused gristmill during the War of 1812, kept safe as the British burned Washington, and brought to Fort Knox during World War II.

And still the words of our founding fathers are visible on its original parchment - a little fadded by light and time - but otherwise as bold as the men who thought them up.

The Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence have not been exposed to air since 1952, when they were enclosed in a total of nine large glass cases filled with helium and a small amount of humidity and sealed with lead.

Enter Tucker, professor of physics at The Sage Colleges. He is part of a team of scientists, backed by NASA, who have been using lasers to determine how well the seal around the document held up in the past 50 years. His work is part of a five-year, $4.8 million project aimed at keeping the nine pages of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independance and the Bill of Rights as safe and as age-free as possible.

For Tucker and other scientists, the work done thus far has meant spending hours standing only a few feet from three pages of the document this country is founded on.

"We never forget it for a minute," he said. "Can you imagine if you did anything to that document? It was like skating on thin ice."

Tucker, 53, who grew up in Menands and now lives in Nassau, was recommended by a freind for involvement in what the U.S. National Archives calls "The Charters of Freedom Rencasement Project."

Six years ago, he took a sabbatical from Sage to help develop a low-power laser that could measure water vapor. The laser was used to sample air quality over the South Pacific and was to be used on an unmanned Mars project that csashed into the planet in December 1999.

It was while he was in the South Pacific that the call came came for Tucker - his country needed him.

"They discovered some years ago that the glass that encased the documents was deteriorating." said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the archives. "While they didn't consider it an emergency ... we began thinking about what the perfect new encasement could be."

But before they could do that, they had to figure out if the atmosphere that had kept the parchment so safe for the past 50 years was helium or just air that had leaked in. So Tucker had to alter his laser from measuring hundreds od feet to only a half-inch - the thickness of gas inside the chamber where the documenta are kept.

The work made for some surreal moments. Their first project, to test three pages of the Constitution that are currently not on display, began about the same time in 1999 when President Clinton was going through the impeachement process.

"Every night we'd go back to the hotel, and the TV would have someone saying, 'The Constitution says this,' " he said. "And we were reading it from two feet away on the original paper."

The rest of the pages, along with the Declaration of Independece and the Bill of Rights, are kept in the rotunda on the NARA Building, which will be shut down for two years for renovation starting in July. Once the rotunda is closed, Tucker and his team will return to check the seals on the rest of the pages.

His studies found that, after half a century, the cases that hold three pages of the Constitution were all sealed. The tested pages will be resealed in new cases, this time filled with the gas argon. Eventually, all pages will be viewable by the public.

Tucker says the time he spent near the documents was profound and he's looking forward to continuing his work.

"It dominates our lives, but you don't think of it as a physical thing," he said. "To actually be there with it, you get a chill."