Tears don't flow the same in space
High above Earth on 12th September 2001, an astronaut writes home
On this day in 2001, the world looked on in horror as four commercial jets were hijacked by terrorists and used as weapons to kill almost 3,000 people on US soil. Two of those planes were f into the iconic Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, ultimately bringing them both to the ground. There was just one American not on Earth that morning: Frank Culbertson, a fifty-two-year-old NASA astronaut who at the time was 250 miles from his home planet, working as commander of the International Space Station. A day after the attacks, he wrote home.
September 12, 2001; 19:34 hours
I haven't written very much about specifics of this mission during the month I've been here, mainly for two reasons: the first being that there has been very little time to do that kind of writing, and secondly because I'm not sure how comfortable I am sharing thoughts I share with family and friends with the rest of the world.
Well, obviously the world changed today. What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked by… by whom? Terrorists is all we know, I guess. Hard to know at whom to direct our anger and fear.
I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members. In a private conversation following that, the flight surgeon told me they were having a very bad day on the ground. I had no idea.
I know so many people in Washington, so many people who travel to DC and NYC, so many who are pilots, that I felt sure I would receive at least a few pieces of bad news over the next few days. I got the first one today when I learned that the Captain of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon was Chic Burlingame, a classmate of mine. I met Chic during plebe summer when we were in the D&B together, and we had lots of classes together. I can't imagine what he must of gone through, and now I hear that he may have risen further than we can even think of by possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. What a terrible loss, but I'm sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. And tears don't flow the same in space...
It's difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American completely off the planet at a time such as this. The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming. I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world. Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately.
It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are. And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting. I have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done. I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much. I can't be there with you in person, and we have a long way to go to complete our mission, but be certain that my heart is with you, and know you are in my prayers.
The above letter can also be found in the book, Letters of Note: Space. This is the free edition of the Letters of Note newsletter. Become a paid subscriber and I’ll send you many more.
To me is the phrase of note is "Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us".
I had already arrived at my university position on Long Island by 8:00 am that day, traveling from NYC. And then it began to happen and I watched the collapse of one tower and then soon heard about the second. My younger brother (not in space) but traveling with his wife in France saw the flames on the TV at the local bistro and asked if there was a forest fire. He was told it was NYC ... and he said, my sister lives there ... I am delighted as usual to see this very pertinent letter from an astronaut high above the earth. We saw the horror from so many different vantage points and yet still over 20+ years later cannot shake off the day, as we shouldn't.