Status Report

Letter from Expedition 3 Commander Frank Culbertson, reflecting on the events of 11 September 2001

By SpaceRef Editor
October 15, 2001
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The following is the text of a letter from Expedition Three Commander Frank L. Culbertson (Captain, USN Retired), reflecting on the events of September 11.

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…

He described
the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT. I was flabbergasted,
then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn’t a real conversation,
that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes. It just
didn’t seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn’t
even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further
destruction began coming in.

came over pretty quickly, sensing that something very serious
was being discussed. I waved Michael into the module as well.
They were also amazed and stunned. After we signed off, I tried
to explain to Vladimir and Michael as best I could the potential
magnitude of this act of terror in downtown Manhattan and at the
Pentagon. They clearly understood and were very sympathetic.

I glanced
at the World Map on the computer to see where over the world we
were and noticed that we were coming southeast out of Canada and
would be passing over New England in a few minutes. I zipped around
the station until I found a window that would give me a view of
NYC and grabbed the nearest camera. It happened to be a video
camera, and I was looking south from the window of Michael’s cabin.

The smoke
seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that
was streaming south of the city. After reading one of the news
articles we just received, I believe we were looking at NY around
the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower.
How horribleā€¦

I panned
the camera all along the East Coast to the south to see if I could
see any other smoke around Washington, or anywhere else, but nothing
was visible.

It was pretty
difficult to think about work after that, though we had some to
do, but on the next orbit we crossed the US further south. All
three of us were working one or two cameras to try to get views
of New York or Washington. There was haze over Washington, but
no specific source could be seen. It all looked incredible from
two to three hundred miles away. I can’t imagine the tragic scenes
on the ground.

Other than
the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands
of our citizens and maybe some friends being killed, the most
overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation.

Next day….

I guess the
fatigue and emotional strain got the best of me. I couldn’t stay
awake and continue to write. Today was still difficult, but we
started getting more information, plus we had the honor of talking
directly with the Center Director, Roy Estess, who assured us
that the ground teams would continue to work and ensure our safety,
as well as the safe operation of the Station. We also heard from
our Administrator, Mr. Goldin, who added that the partners in
the Program are all totally committed to continuing safe operations
and support. These were never questions for me. I know all these
people! The ground teams have been incredibly supportive, very
understanding of the impact of the news, and have tried to be
as helpful as possible. They have all been very professional and
focused though I can’t imagine the distraction of this type of
news coming in and the thought that government buildings might
be at risk. They never skipped a beat, even when relocating control
centers. And a group of senior personnel and friends gave us a
pretty thorough briefing on what was known and what was being
done in the government and at NASA on Tuesday afternoon, which
was very helpful and kind of them to do in the midst of all the
turmoil. The Russian TsUP has also been supportive and helpful,
trying to uplink news articles when our own assets were inoperable,
and saying kind words…

My crewmates
have been great, too. They know it’s been a tough day for me and
the folks on the ground, and they’ve tried to be as even keeled
and helpful as possible. Michael even fixed me my favorite Borscht
soup for dinner. And they give me plenty of room to think when
I needed it. They are very sympathetic and of course outraged
at whoever would do this.

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 the 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.



14, 2001; 22:49

An update
to the last letter… Fortunately, it’s been a busy week up here.
And to prove that, like our country, we are continuing on our
intended path with business as usual (as much as possible). Tonight
the latest addition to the station, the Russian Docking Compartment
will be launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. On Saturday night
(US time), it will dock with us, at a port never used before on
the nadir side of the Service Module. This new module will give
us another place to dock a Progress or Soyuz and will provide
a large airlock with two useable hatches for conducting EVA’s
in Russian Orlan suits, which we will do a few of before we come

The problem
before in dealing with this week was too little news. The problem
now is too much. It came all at once when email was restored,
and there’s not enough time to read it all! Plus it’s too hard
to deal with all of it at once. But I appreciate getting it, and
I really appreciate the great letters of support and friendship
I am receiving.

We are doing
well on board, getting our work done, and talking about things.
Last night we had a long discussion over dinner about the significance
of these events, the possible actions to follow, and what should
be done. After dinner, Michael made a point of telling me that
every email he received from friends in Russia said specifically
to tell me how sorry they were that this happened, extending their
condolences, and asking how I was doing. Vladimir taught me the
Russian word for “condolences” after talking to the
previous CDR, Yuri Usachev, on the phone in Star City. (Both the
Russian and the English words are much too long to pronounce easily.)
Very kind people.

For the last
two days, the Russian MCC has been good enough to transmit live
broadcasts of radio news about the event and associated stories,
to make sure I was well informed. Every specialist who has come
on the line to discuss a procedure or a problem has at some point
extended greetings to me with kind words. Tonight the Russian
capcom told us that because of the special day of remembrance
in the US, all day people had been bringing flowers and lining
all the walls of the US embassy in Moscow, and this evening they
were lighting candles in the street outside the embassy. How the
world has changed.

People everywhere
seem to recognize the senselessness and horror in this attack.
And the tremendous loss. Moscow has dealt with these kind of problems
in the last few years with apartment and subway bombings, so they
are as anxious to get rid of this threat as we are. But the bottom
line is that there are good people everywhere who want to live
in peace. I read that a child asked, “America is so good
to other countries, we always help everyone, how can they hate
us so much?”

I hope the
example of cooperation and trust that this spacecraft and all
the people in the program demonstrate daily will someday inspire
the rest of the world to work the same way. They must!

we won’t be flying over the US during the time people are lighting
candles. Don’t know if we could see that anyway. We did, however,
see a very unusual and beautiful sight a few minutes ago: the
launch of our Docking Compartment on a Soyuz booster. We were
overtaking it and it came into view about three minutes after
its launch from Baikonur as the sun hit our station, so it was
still in the dark. It looked like a large comet with a straight,
wide tail silhouetted against the dark planet beneath. Despite
some bad lighting for a while as the sun hit our window at a low
angle, I managed some video of it as first we passed the rocket,
and then watched it begin to catch up as it gained altitude and
speed. I filmed until main engine cutoff and booster separation
occurred just as we approached sunrise on the Himalayas. An unforgettable
sight in an unforgettable week…

Life goes
on, even in space. We’re here to stay…


SpaceRef staff editor.