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A Spacelift Washington Special: Of Wings and Reason: A Canticle for September 11th

By frank_sietzen
September 16, 2001
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Spacelift Washington

Spacelift Washington Archive

A Spacelift Washington Special by Frank Sietzen, Jr.

ARLINGTON, VA – Long ago as a child I fell in love with rockets and satellites. Later, as a student I became fascinated by politics and for a while, made it a career. As an adult, I came late in life to love airplanes, great winged creatures of grace and beauty. This week all three became imperiled by events few among us could have ever imagined. We must therefore act to restore them to relevance before the year 2001 becomes a collection of memories that disturb and not inspire. Thus this week’s column is the writer’s response to the events of September 11, 2001, written from Pentagon City, Virginia, the residential community near the Pentagon. Before you are through, I will ask you, the reader, to do three things to help us get past these events.

For the journalistic community of Washington that covers the space program, Tuesday September 11th contained a scheduled press briefing by SpaceHab of the current status of its Enterprise Commercial Space Module project. The 9:30am briefing was set at their offices near NASA headquarters in the Capitol, in the general vicinity of the Air and Space Museum. I left my apartment next to the Pentagon City Mall and entered the Metro station there just as the hands of the clock struck 9am. I, and hundreds of other train riders had passed the Pentagon station and crossed above the Potomac on the Metro Yellow line train just before the aircraft hit. We had no idea what was happening in New York, until we emerged above ground near NASA’s headquarters building at the Federal Center Metro station . There, people were running, calling out the horror they had just witnessed.

By the time I arrived at SpaceHab’s offices, the company’s press conference was canceled, and instead we were all crowded around a television set showing the replay of the second aircraft’s impact. Then, NBC showed an aerial view of the Pentagon in flames, and we all fled the office for our respective destinations. In the taxicab ride to Pentagon City and my apartment, we could see the burning Pentagon from besides the freeway, but also could see that only one side had been damaged. Within an hour after the impact, Arlington County police were everywhere in Pentagon City. Yellow police tape roped off my apartment building’s parking lot, the park next door, and the Pentagon City mall. Patrol cars rode up and down the streets, and cars and people who, I guess looked strange or suspicious, were stopped. In the distance we could see black smoke still rising from the Pentagon.

That night, and in the next two days, helicopters patrolled the skies of the area, buses rerouted from the Pentagon spilled out into the streets near the Mall, and police still patrolled the darkened streets of Pentagon and Crystal Cities at night. I guess, for a time, we were the safest place on Earth. Tuesday afternoon at dusk my building supervisor and I climbed to the roof of my apartment building, and could clearly see the recovery activity at the far side of the Pentagon building. We could also see that, on the higher floors of some office buildings on the side of the freeway closest to the Pentagon, panes of glass were damaged or split off, missing. The radius seemed to be about two blocks away from the Pentagon building. We stood silent, thinking of what could have been had the plane hit on the side facing us. The all-glass Pentagon City mall was three blocks away, and our building four.

The rays of the setting sun illuminated a strange scene, of recovery and redirection. It looked like a normal, beautiful fall evening. But it wasn’t.

On history’s clock it was sunset, with the rays of the setting sun illuminating the last day of the old world we knew. Every dawn from then on would bring to life a new day in a new world, challenged and changed by what had gone before. A world whose landmarks would be unknown, and whose direction we would find only in time.

As the week progressed, life returned slowly to normal in Pentagon City and Crystal City. In the District, however, it was a different story, as police patrolled the area around Capitol Hill and extended the closed off zone surrounding the White House. As the scenes of Tuesday’s horror were replayed over and over, they embedded themselves into the collective memory of all who witnessed them. Including generations of young children. It was on one morning this weekend that I saw a group of children playing when we all heard the sound -for the first time in a long while -of an airplane overhead. And the children, for a moment, were frightened.
Frightened. Of an airplane.

This we cannot allow to take hold.

So, here is the first of my three requests of readers of this column:

Let those of us who love flying and flight come together to find a way to explain airplanes, and aviation, and anything to do with flying to children and schools across the region.
No, I don’t know what we can do, but I don’t think I’m over reacting. Children should not be frightened by the sight of a 757 or 767 ever again. As a newly minted member of the New York-based Wings Club, perhaps other members living in the area can get together with me and figure out ways to address this. Perhaps we can help bring classes to museums like the Air and Space Museum, and explain how this happened to the aircraft Tuesday, and how this is, was, an aberration. This is a time for all of us who love aerospace to help children and teachers move beyond these horrible images. Let us come together to see what we can do.

And while we are doing that, we must continue to urge those who lead us to put on hold partisan politics for the duration. Thus far, our leaders seem to really have come together and are focused on building a central, common united front. But as time passes, that will become harder and harder to sustain. We need to address the budget issues, as well as the war to come, without party politics being an issue. While we are at it, it is my hope that those of us who care about the future of the space program find some common ground as well, putting aside our own agendas. So here’s my second request:

Let us refrain from party politics and bickering amongst ourselves until we have struck back at those who caused Tuesday’s tragedies. That means no name-calling, no party activities this fall, and no blaming others for our various budget crises.

As an active Republican who was part of John McCain’s campaign last year and who has been active in local Republican politics, I am going to follow my own advice. It occurs to me that it is difficult to get political people to work together if I’m running around bashing the other party’s candidates. So today I have resigned as a member of the Arlington County Republican Committee. I will still support candidates this fall, and pull the voting booth levers and write the checks. But I won’t be engaged in active campaigns bashing the other party. Not while we need to be putting such things aside. Not while the survival of our country is at stake. Yes, I know this is a largely symbolic act and that nobody will much care what I do as an individual. But we cannot afford to return to politics as usual during this period. They will be plenty of time for that next year. One country, one leadership, one voice to the world.

And lastly, we will need to work harder to support space activities. With the current focus on homeland defense, space will seem even more remote a function that it was before to the administration and to the Congressional leadership. But civil space remains crucial to our nation, as much today as it was before September 11th. Perhaps not as important as restoring aviation security or our coming war against terrorism, but important to our children and to their futures. Which leads me to my last request of readers:

Let all of the organizations that promote space activities, from engineers to advocates, come together this fall and draft a common agenda to present next year to our nation’s leadership. I mean NSS, AIA, AAS, Pro-Space, the Chamber of Commerce, Planetary Society, Space Transportation Association, everyone who cares about some space issue. Surely there is some common agenda that we can agree upon? If we fail to do this, and continue to promote only our own rice bowls, we will wake up some morning to find no rice in any of our bowls. And no space program around to care about.

The leadership of the nation is preparing us for war this weekend.

Our aerospace industry is led by aviation. Commercial aviation is suffering, and its collapse is in the interests of no one who believes in any kind of flying machine, plane to shuttle, launch vehicles or private aircraft. Those who struck New York and Washington Tuesday must not win another victory by forever making the skies uncertain. Things with wings and things that fly are too important and too wonderful not to reclaim. Beautiful, graceful things. What John Gillespie Magee, Jr. called laughter silvered-wings. Some 60 years ago this month Magee, an American Pilot officer serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force wrote words that have moved all who care about the sky ever since. He wrote the poem, High Flight, in September 1941. Three months later on December 11, 1941 he died in a midair collision over England. But his words still call to us the beauty of flying and flight and flying machines, a beauty that no terrorist can ever erase. You remember his words, don’t you? The ones that said

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of

High in the sunlit silence

. .I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air

Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never Lark, or even Eagle flew

And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


If you care about all of the things that move through the sky, this is not the time to be silent, or critical, or indifferent.

It is time to speak out and speak up.

Time for us, to know who we truly are.

May the Hand of God still touch us, and still keep watch over our beloved country.

Ad Astra-Per aspera.



The information contained herein are the authors own and are not affiliated with any other society, organization, or institution. Publication does not constitute endorsement of either editorial content or sponsoring web site. Have information about space transportation? Email the editor at [email protected]