I distinctly recall the first television program I encountered after September 11th that had nothing to do with the tragedy. For days, America had been horrified and unified by images of the attacks. As the “new normal” set in, TV footage flooded our homes and minds with an emerging dark chapter, interspersed with brief lights of encouragement. Members of the U.S. Congress sang God Bless America on the steps of a still-standing Capitol the night of Tuesday the 11th, and on Friday, we heard the comforting words and prayer from the National Cathedral. Very tiny glimmers of hope in a devastating week.

Most were transfixed by the TV coverage. For my fellow Soldiers and me, assigned to the 101st Airborne, our normal duties suddenly seemed not so normal, as we hurtled towards another “rendezvous with destiny,” as the 101st song goes. Even so, we were allowed the next weekend off. That Saturday morning, on the first post-September 11th weekend, I had a cup of coffee, turned on the TV, and saw American flags, applause, and...Apollo 11.

A network programmer had chosen to air a documentary, about our most inspiring and momentous national achievements- when we put men on the moon. I still vividly remember thinking, “wow, someone is really on the ball this morning...” trying to remind us of who we are, of one of our most positive, upbeat national moments. I am still grateful for whomever made that call, perhaps trivial to some, but speaking volumes to me. The show provided a brief, fleeting, historical perspective about our national character during that hardest of weeks. American teamwork, resilience, and courage accomplished what President Kennedy said would be “the most hazardous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” The same qualities would be required to recover from these attacks and to defend our nation.

There was exactly one American alive and not on earth on September 11th. Astronaut Frank Culbertson had launched to orbit the previous month on the Space Shuttle Discovery to command Expedition 3 on the International Space Station (ISS). Ground control related to Culbertson the tragic events a little over an hour after they began. The astronaut realized the ISS was over Canada and would soon be flying over New York City. From a letter Frank Culbertson wrote the next day:

“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 horrible…”

In the billowing darkness of the attacks, the American mood responded with resolve, unity, and a spirit of service. Citizens gave blood. First responders from all over the country raced to New York. Young people enlisted in the military. We all stood United, but one of our citizens, felt something different that fall as he sped around our planet at 17,000 miles an hour: “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.”

While not totally alone, (Culbertson was on the ISS with two Russian crew members), imagine being the only American in outer space upon finding out that a friend had died in the attacks. “Chic” Burlingame and Culbertson both graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1971. Both were F-4 Fighter Pilots, Naval Aviators familiar with the rigors of landing a jet on the pitching deck of a carrier at sea. They were no strangers to the dangers of serving their nation. Captain Burlingame was a graduate of the Navy Top Gun school and had flown in Vietnam. Culbertson went on to write:

“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 [Drum & Bugle Corps] 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.


Astronaut Frank Culbertson remained in orbit that fall until he left the ISS and returned to Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, landing at the Shuttle Landing Facility Runway in Florida on December 17, 2001.

As I write these words, almost twenty-one years later, I’m in the back of an airliner, descending to another Florida runway, in Orlando. I’m on a journey to a spot very near the same real estate where Culbertson’s Endeavor landed at the Kennedy Space Center in 2001. On Monday morning, if all goes as planned, I’ll watch my first in-person rocket launch from there. The unmanned mission will be the first flight of the most powerful rocket in history, and I’m excited to see it. America is about to reach for the moon again.

Soon this new spacecraft will take men and women to the lunar surface. The future does not belong to the faint of heart; it belongs to the brave and determined - those who do things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard” as President Kennedy said. No doubt millions of Americans will gather around their screens on the launch days to come, United again in the excitement of exploration, achievement, and excellence.

These endeavors are not without risk. We’ve lost astronauts in flight and came very close to losing the moon-bound Apollo 13 crew. A very different type of loss than those first responders who stepped forward to rescue their neighbors on September 11th, but at same time, there is a similarity. Whether brave souls sacrifice in an immediate act of service to their fellow man, or in an effort to serve all mankind, either way, they give of themselves to something bigger than themselves. That has been the great constant of these Space endeavors and also the American response to many great “shifts in history” as Frank Culbertson put it. It takes courage, and our nation still musters that courage in a massive effort from time to time.

When the Artemis rocket shakes the earth in a sound and fury of a national collective will, it will usher in a new chapter as bright as its exhaust plume. In all the glory, applause, and flag waving of the imminent moon landings, as we revel in times as exciting as Apollo, I’ll never forget how such courage and excellence not only gives us a zeal for discovery and advancement, it steadies us and encourages us on our darkest days too. Courage is courage whether it’s an astronaut braving the terrorizing vacuum of outer space, a Soldier serving all of us overseas, or a fireman fighting the inferno. I’m thankful for that, and I’m still thankful for that TV programmer who was able to piece that all together, in our worst of weeks.

John Hamilton

You can read Astronaut Culbertson's full letter here.