There are some events in our lives which leave an indelible mark, perhaps none more so than the loss of almost 3,000 innocents on the morning of 11 September 2001, when a pair of commercial airliners ploughed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City. Another jet later hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and—thanks to the selfless heroism of its passengers and crew—a fourth failed to reach its target in Washington, D.C., and instead crashed into a field, near Shanksville, Penn. That dreadful day, 20 Septembers ago, reminded us that although evil endures in our world, the goodness of humanity can and will ultimately prevail.
One of those who died on 9/11 was retired Air Force Col. Charles “Chuck” Jones, who might have flown the shuttle on a classified Department of Defense mission in December 1986, had not Challenger been lost a few months earlier. Jones had earlier been picked as a Manned Spaceflight Engineer (MSE), destined for a payload specialist spot on a military shuttle mission.
At the time of the Challenger accident, Jones was training to fly on STS-71B, due to deploy a Defense Support Program (DSP) early-warning satellite, atop Boeing’s Inertial Upper Stage (IUS). A decade and a half later, Jones was a passenger aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the WTC’s North Tower.
Only a single American, retired Navy Capt. Frank Culbertson, was not on the planet on that fateful Tuesday. He was five weeks into a four-month tour as Commander of Expedition 3, the third long-duration increment aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Culbertson, already a veteran shuttle pilot and commander, had been launched on STS-105 on 10 August, shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin. Following the departure of shuttle Discovery and her crew, Culbertson & Co. hit the ground running and set to work for an expedition dominated by science.
Their early weeks aboard the orbital outpost were dominated by unpacking hardware from the Progress M-45 cargo ship, which arrived in late August laden with 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of payloads, equipment and supplies. In tandem with this work, Culbertson’s crew installed and activated the Volatile Organic Analyzer (VOA) to take air samples and identify potential contaminants in the ISS atmosphere. They also replaced a voltage converter unit in Russia’s Zvezda service module.
Culbertson, Dezhurov and Tyurin enjoyed a three-day weekend of light activities on 1/2 September, which gave them a much-needed breather to acclimatize to their orbital home, before diving directly into science, maintenance and repairs. They checked wiring to the station’s treadmill, tightened connections to the air-conditioning system and installed a new videotape recorder in the U.S. Destiny lab.
And they wrapped up a human cell culture experiment which grew colon, kidney and ovarian cancer cells. The second week of September was expected to commence in a routine fashion, capped by the launch and arrival of a new ISS module.
By the morning of Tuesday, 11 September 2001, the crew’s attention was focused on the launch of Russia’s 16-foot-tall (5-meter) Pirs docking module, targeted for the following Friday, 14 September. It would provide an additional docking interface for visiting vehicles at the Russian Operational Segment (ROS) and Pirs went on to provide almost two decades of flawless service to the ISS before it was deorbited in July 2021.
But as the crew finished breakfast and set to work that morning, some 250 miles (400 km) beneath them, the world changed at precisely 8:46 a.m. EDT.
Following standard physical exams, Culbertson spoke privately to the flight surgeon, who broke the news of a terrible day on the ground. “I had no idea,” wrote Culbertson in a 12 September letter, posted on NASA’s website. He was partway through reading a Tom Clancy thriller novel and it felt as if Culbertson had somehow slipped into that story.
“My first through was that this wasn’t a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes,” he said. “It just didn’t seem possible on this scale in our country.”
Quickly, Dezhurov floated over to him, aware that something was not right. Culbertson waved Tyurin over to join them. “They were also amazed and stunned,” he recalled. “They clearly understood and were very sympathetic.”
All at once, Culbertson glanced at the station’s world map and realized that they were crossing over southern Canada and fast approaching New England. He located a camera and the closest window facing in the proper direction—situated in Tyurin’s cabin—then resolved to capture whatever imagery he could.
The pictures revealed a harrowing black smudge coating New York City, like a shroud. “The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city,” Culbertson remembered. “After reading one of the news articles we just received, I believe we were looking at New York around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower.”
He panned the camera across the East Coast in a southward direction in an attempt to discern any other smoke in the Washington, D.C., area. But nothing was apparent. An orbit later, all three men were working with cameras to get views of the carnage. They received calls from home and made the best of a tragic day. Tyurin fixed Culbertson’s favorite borscht soup for dinner and both cosmonauts gave him quiet time when he needed it.
“I know so many people in Washington, so many people who travel to D.C. 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,” Culbertson wrote on 13 September. The first was word that the captain of American Airlines Flight 77—the jetliner which hit the Pentagon—was none other than Charles “Chic” Burlingame III, one of Culbertson’s old Naval Academy classmates and a fellow graduate from the Class of 1971.
“I had met Chic during pleme summer and we had lots of classes together,” Culbertson remembered. “I can’t imagine what he must have gone through and now I hear that he may have risen further than we can even think by possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. I’m sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. And tears don’t flow the same in space.”
From their perch, high above the Home Planet, Culbertson, Dezhurov and Tyurin were struck by the perverse juxtaposition of the beauty of Earth set against the unspeakable evil which some humans could unleash against others. “It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country, from such a fantastic vantage point,” he wrote. “The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the Earth and watching life being destroyed by such wilful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche.”
But life, as it does, moved on. On the Friday after the tragedy, Pirs launched smoothly into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and docked safely at the ISS a few days thereafter. For the Expedition 3 crew, an initial dearth of news was replaced with too much.
“And there’s not enough time to read it all,” Culbertson wrote. “But I appreciate getting it and I really appreciate the great letters of support and friendship I am receiving.” Every specialist, whether in the United States or Russia, who spoke to him over those dark days extended their heartfelt sympathies.
Culbertson, Dezhurov and Tyurin returned to Earth the following December. And at some point afterwards, Culbertson happened to meet a disabled veteran, who had lost part of the use of an arm and both of his legs. The two started talking and Culbertson mentioned that he had served aboard the ISS. The other man was fascinated.
“You know,” said the veteran, “that’s one of the best things we’re doing.” For a moment, Culbertson was puzzled. Then the man added: “We have to work together, internationally, or we’ll never solve all of these problems.”
Suddenly, reality hit home for the only American who was not on Planet Earth on 9/11. “I think it’s important for people to continue to learn the lessons from this, and make sure we are in fact making ourselves a better country as a result of it, not regressing or turning inward or changing ourselves into a society that we won’t be proud to pass on to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said Culbertson.
At another event, he met children from a New York school, located very close to Ground Zero. They and their teachers had witnessed horrors that their eyes should have never seen. “But they were optimistic,” breathed Culbertson, with a measure of both pride and admiration. “And that’s our future.”