11 September 2001: Bad news from Earth

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Excerpt from "New Moon Rising: The Making Of America's New Space Vision And The Remaking Of NASA", by Frank Sietzen, Jr. and Keith L. Cowing

That last day of Innocence

On 6 September 2001, on one of those stunningly crisp, cool days Washingtonians crave, a hearing was held at the Russell Senate Office building on shuttle safety.

At the time NASA felt that it was on a secure path to upgrading the shuttle fleet such that, in the words of Bill Readdy, then Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight, who testified at the hearing "it will enable the Space Shuttle to fly safely well into the second decade of the 21st century." Meanwhile, Richard Blomberg, chair of the Aerospace Safety Advisor Panel warned, "The long-term situation has deteriorated." Yet he also felt, "NASA needs a reliable human-rated space vehicle to reap the full benefits of the International Space Station (ISS), and the Panel believes that, with adequate planning and investment, that vehicle can be the Space Shuttle."

The Senators present were concerned about the situation, and pressed Readdy as to why certain upgrades were being deferred or why more funds had not been focused on dealing with shuttle upgrade and safety issues. But no one was waving their arms about suggesting that any imminent threat existed.

Upon leaving the hearing Readdy, noticing the stunningly blue cool sky, decided to walk back to his office. That walk ended up becoming an hour long chat with a reporter on the status of the space program.

At that time Readdy saw that the ISS, while somewhat strained to meet the interest of a wide variety of users, could easily be tweaked such that it served as a test bed for the flight qualification of humans for long duration voyages. The tweaks would involve picking the research. No significant costs were envisioned.

On that day Readdy was optimistic about where things could go, but like everyone else in the agency, was tired of what NASA had been put through over the past decade. Cost overruns on the ISS certainly did not help matters.

As he excused himself and headed back to his office for a meeting, little did Readdy, or anyone else, know what would happen 5 days later on a cool, sunny September day. Readdy's home was a few blocks away from the Pentagon.

Some 250 miles above the Earth, the International Space Station sped along as September 11th arrived. Onboard, Expedition Three Commander Frank Culbertson, Pilot Vladimir Dezhurov and Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin were in the fifth week of a four-month stay aboard the station.

Preparations were under-way for the arrival of the Russian PIRS docking compartment due for launch in 3 days and arrival at ISS several days later. Otherwise, all things had been moving along at a normal pace.

In Washington, and all along the east coast, it was another one of those classic clear September days Readdy had stopped to admire the previous week. While many were still on the commute into work, the attacks began. At NASA Headquarters, as with the rest of Washington DC, no one quite knew what was going on. Soon people were watching news footage of the Twin towers on fire in New York. Then came word of an explosion at the Pentagon and rumors (which later proved to be false) of another one at the State Department.

Anyone looking to the west from Washington could clearly see a plume of dark smoke rising from across the Potomac. Meanwhile, rumors of another plane flying up the Potomac toward Washington made the rounds. Other rumors spread of an odd plane seen circling above the Mall.

People quickly left their desks and, in the hours ahead, managed to find their way home. Soon the entire agency would either be shut down or shut off from the rest of the world. Shuttles were secured, and gates were locked.

Bad news from home

The news from Earth that morning wasn't good. Frank Culbertson would soon find that some of the day's pre-planned routine would be altered. As soon as he was told of the attacks, Culbertson checked to see when they would be passing over the east coast of the U.S. Discovering that this was only some minutes away, Culbertson grabbed a camera. The window in Mikhail Tyurin's cabin turned out to be the one with the best view.

Over the next several days Culbertson would shoot still and video imagery out of the station's windows as it passed over New York City. Space Imaging would follow with high resolution imagery of the damage in New York and Virginia taken by its IKONOS satellite. Both the close-up and distant views from space were haunting. Culbertson would later radio back to Earth, "Our prayers and thoughts go out to all the people there, and everywhere else. Here I am looking up and down the East Coast to see if I can see anything else, and to the people in Washington."

Later, Culbertson would learn of his own tragic connection to 9-11. The captain of the jet which was crashed into the Pentagon was Charles ‘Chic' Burlingame, a former Navy pilot and a classmate of Culbertson's. Culbertson would later reflect back and note how isolated he felt to be the only American off the planet.

Excerpt from "New Moon Rising: The Making Of America's New Space Vision And The Remaking Of NASA", by Frank Sietzen, Jr. and Keith L. Cowing


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