Alpha commander knew Flight 77 pilot
'Tears don't flow the same in space'
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- On Monday, as Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Tyurin and Vladimir Dezhurov made their second spacewalks from the orbiting international space station, the highly accomplished American spaceman monitoring their progress from inside Alpha was Frank Culbertson. He's to make a walk, himself, on November 5.
And in the text of a letter from Culbertson, written in space, NASA has published the astronaut's revelation that he was in school with Charles Burlingame, captain of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on September 11 with 64 people aboard. Burlingame, like Culbertson, was a former United States Navy pilot, and was based in Herndon, Virginia.
"I know so many people in Washington, so many people who travel to D.C. and N.Y.C., so many who are pilots," writes Culbertson in a part of the letter dated September 12, "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."
Culbertson is one of three members of the space station's current resident crew and commander of Expedition Three, as that crew is called.
Now 51, Culbertson is a native of Charleston, South Carolina, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, a retired Navy captain and a pilot with more than 350 aircraft carrier landings on his record -- more than 6,000 hours in a cockpit.
A veteran of two space flights prior to this sojourn on space station Alpha, he reveals some very earthly meditations in the extended letter he wrote over several days after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
At one point, Culbertson writes about getting the news of the attacks on that Tuesday from NASA's flight surgeon who had conducted physical exams of the Alpha crew.
"I glanced at the world map on the computer," Culbertson writes, "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 N.Y.C. and grabbed the nearest camera. It happened to be a video camera, and I was looking south from the window of Michael's (Mikhail Tyurin'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 N.Y. around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. How horrible ..."
Later in his letter, Culbertson writes of the isolation of being on the space station -- which orbits at some 240 statute miles above Earth -- at a time of such crisis: "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."
Interestingly, in being aboard Alpha with two Russian colleagues, Culbertson had an experience familiar to many Americans who were out of the country at the time of the attacks. "After dinner, Michael made a point of telling me that every e-mail 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.'
"Every specialist who has come on the line to discuss a procedure or a problem," he goes on to write, "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 U.S., all day people had been bringing flowers and lining all the walls of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and this evening they were lighting candles in the street outside the embassy. How the world has changed."
Culbertson's letter includes commendations to the mission crews, both in the United States and in Russia, for their efforts on the space station's crew members' behalf during the crisis. He's sensitive in his writings to the upheaval of security precautions taken at NASA facilities immediately after the attacks.
"They have all been very professional and focused," he writes, "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..."
His own kind words, though, are reserved most gently for his lost friend Burlingame of Flight 77.
"What a terrible loss," Culbertson writes, "but I'm sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. And tears don't flow the same in space..."
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NASA: Frank Culbertson's letter from the space station
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