The attacks of September 11, 2001 were a national tragedy that resulted in a staggering loss of life and a significant change in American culture. Every year we pause and remember. In addition to honoring the Americans who died that day, NASA also assisted FEMA in New York in the days that followed, remembering the victims by providing flags flown aboard the Space Shuttle to their families.
Astronaut Frank Culbertson – The only American from the planet
“The smoke seemed to have a strange bloom at the base of the plume that flowed south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I think we looked at NY around the time of, or soon after, the collapse of the second tower. How terrible…”– Frank Culbertson
Expedition 3 commander Frank Culbertson was aboard the International Space Station at the time of the attacks, and the only American on the crew. As soon as he heard about the attacks, he began documenting the event in photographs because the station was flying over the New York City area. He captured incredible images minutes and hours after the event. From his unique vantage point in space, he recorded his thoughts on the world changing beneath him.
Watch video: Culbertson Remembers 9/11
The following day, he posted a public letter capturing his initial thoughts on the events as they unfolded. “The world changed today. What I say or do is very small compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked.”
On reflection, Culbertson said, “It’s terrible to see smoke billowing from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on earth and seeing life destroyed by such intentional, horrific actions, shakes the psyche, no matter who you are.”
“The smoke seemed to have a strange bloom at the base of the plume that flowed south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I think we looked at NY around the time of, or soon after, the collapse of the second tower. How terrible…”– Frank Culbertson Read Culbertson’s full letter
NASA’s science programs monitor the air
NASA’s science programs were launched after September 11, 2001, when the agency worked with FEMA to fly sensors over the affected areas on airplanes that looked for air pollutants and used satellite resources to monitor from above.
Flags for heroes and families
NASA flew nearly 6,000 4-by-6-inch flags on Endeavour’s flight during STS-108 to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. Students working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, assembled the memorial packages, including the American flags flying in space, to be presented to the victims’ relatives. The distribution began on June 14, 2002, National Flag Day, at a ceremony held at the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York.
“The ‘Flags for Heroes and Families’ campaign is a way for us to honor and show our support for the thousands of brave men and women who have selflessly contributed to the relief and recovery efforts,” said then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. “The American flag is a patriotic symbol of our strength and solidarity, and our nation’s will to prevail.”
“NASA wanted to provide a fitting tribute to the people who lost their lives in the tragic events of 9/11,” Goldin added. “America’s space program has a long history of carrying objects into space to commemorate historic events, courage and dramatic achievements. ‘Flag for Heroes and Families’ is a natural extension of this ongoing outreach project.”
Read more about ‘Flags for heroes and families’→
The commemoration goes to Mars
In September 2001, Honeybee Robotics workers in lower Manhattan built a pair of tools to grind weathered crusts of rock on Mars so that science instruments on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity could inspect the rock’s interior.
That month’s attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, less than a mile away, shook the lives of the employees and millions of others.
Work on the stone grinding tools needed to meet a tight schedule to allow for thorough testing prior to launch dates, governed by the movements of the planets. The people who built the tools could not spend much time helping in shelters or in other ways to cope with the life-changing tragedy of 9/11. However, they found a special way to pay tribute to the thousands of victims who died in attacks.
An aluminum sleeve that served as a cable shield on each of the rock grinding tools on Mars was made from aluminum recovered from the destroyed World Trade Center towers. The metal bears the image of an American flag and fills a renewed purpose as part of solar system exploration.
One day, both rovers will be silent. In the cold, dry environment in which they have worked on Mars, the onboard memorials to the victims of the 9/11 attacks can remain in good condition for millions of years.
Read more about Rovers’ 9/11 tribute
NASA Kennedy Adds Florida Touch to 9/11 Flag
The contributions of NASA and the Kennedy Space Center were sewn into the fabric of one of the nation’s most recognizable symbols when flags from the Florida spaceport were sewn into an American flag recovered near ground zero after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“A few days after the collapse of the World Trade Center, this flag was hanging on scaffolding at 90 West Street, which was a building directly south of the World Trade Center that was heavily damaged when the south tower collapsed,” Jeff Parness said. director, founder and chairman of the “New York Says Thank You Foundation.”
The flag went on to become one of the most enduring symbols of post-attack recovery. “The National 9/11 Flag” is a permanent part of the collection of the National September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center site. There, the United States flag can evoke a sense of pride, unity and hunger to continue to achieve greatness, just as the nation’s space program has done for more than half a century.
Last updated: September 11, 2022
Editor: Yvette Smith