Spaceflight Insider

Our SpaceFlight Heritage: The light and the dark – 9/11’s space connections

The World Trade Center in flames after Islamic terrorists slammed planes into the north and south towers photo credit Michael Foran

Photo Credit: Michael Foran

It was one of the most horrific attacks in U.S. history – highlighting both the absolute worst and best that humanity has to offer. It is remembered, simply, as “9/11”. Metal from the World Trade Center, the Islamic terrorists’ primary target, has been used on spacecraft that have traveled to distant worlds – and are also incorporated into NASA facilities. In the end, the attacks served to create feelings of incredible pain and anguish – and, in some cases, serve as the inspiration toward brighter days ahead.

Those watching on that day saw 2,977 people lose their lives when 19 Islamic terrorists had hijacked four commercial aircraft and used them as weapons to commit mass murder.

Joe Dowdy, Kennedy Space Center's special operations manager adds stitches to Florida's contribution of the "National 9/11 Flag" during an event held on Feb. 18. Photo Credit: Kim Shiflett / NASA

Joe Dowdy, Kennedy Space Center’s special operations manager, adds stitches to Florida’s contribution of the “National 9/11 Flag” during an event held on Feb. 18. Photo Credit: Kim Shiflett / NASA

Besides providing continuous coverage of the attacks themselves, the 24-hour news cycle also showed Palestinians laughing, dancing and handing out candy in the streets. Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson suggested that the U.S.’ acceptance of homosexual behavior, supporters of abortion, and liberal civil-rights activists were, at least, partly to blame for the attacks. In short, the incident showed the darkest side of our race.

Meanwhile, 260 miles above the devastation, NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson watched as his nation had come under attack. His two Russian counterparts, Mikhail Tyurin and Vladimir Dezhurov, did their best to support their crewmate – in the end, just providing him with space that he needed so to comprehend what had just happened.

As the United States military began working to bring those responsible to justice, another aspect of the attacks was in need of addressing. Much as Culbertson had encountered during his time on the space station, the U.S. psyche needed to make sense of what had happened, to feel that something good would come out of the attacks.

“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,” Culbertson said in letters to NASA written the day on and after the attacks. “[…] they (Tyurin and Dezhurov) give me plenty of room to think when I needed it. They are very sympathetic and, of course, outraged at whoever would do this.”

Those involved with the space program, an effort which has inspired many since the agency’s formation in 1958, were no different in this regard.

The manufacturers of the robotic arms on NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have fitted a cable shield – with a prominently-placed American flag – made from aluminum retrieved from the remains of the World Trade Center.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity cable shield U.S. flag NASA JPL-Caltech MSSS photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The cable shield on each of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers is composed of aluminum retrieved from the fallen World Trade Center buildings. Opportunity, one of the two rovers, continues to operate as of this writing. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

With the strict timelines of those who produce space hardware have to work under, there was no way that employees with the New York-based Honeybee Robotics could contribute toward supporting recovery efforts. Rather, they requested and received permission to use the aluminum that would become those shields.

“It’s gratifying knowing that a piece of the World Trade Center is up there on Mars. That shield on Mars, to me, contrasts the destructive nature of the attackers with the ingenuity and hopeful attitude of Americans,” said Stephen Gorevan, Honeybee’s founder and chairman.

Spirit fell silent on March 22, 2010. Opportunity, however, is still functioning and carrying out science on the surface of the Red Planet – more than 11 years after reaching the Martian surface.

A tribute dedicated to the 343 fire and rescue personnel who lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks will be unveiled to the media tomorrow, Sept. 11, 2015, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Fire Station 1.

The ceremony will be hosted by KSC’s Associate Director Kelvin Manning along with representatives from the Spaceport Integration and Services Directorate as well as local fire, rescue, and police. The nation’s need for something positive to come out of the attacks has been met with efforts to show the better side of our nature, through gestures of civic and national pride.

The efforts of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center were also included in the fabric of an American Flag recovered near ground zero in New York. Materials from flags that were set to be retired (one from each of the 50 states) were incorporated into “The National 9/11 Flag” which stopped at the center on Feb. 18. The components taken from the flag from Florida originated at KSC.

“For our site to be chosen, you know, on one hand I believe is all together fitting and proper because what we do at Kennedy Space Center is dare mighty things on behalf of the American people and all of humankind,” said Joe Dowdy, special operations manager at Kennedy. “Some of that involves sacrifice and certainly this flag is an incredible demonstration of what free people sometimes have to be called upon to do, to sacrifice even their own lives.”

It has been 14 years since the words “Let’s roll” were uttered by Todd Beamer, a passenger on the doomed United Airlines Flight 93 which impacted just outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Since that time, there have been numerous, smaller attacks carried out by Islamic extremists at Ft. Hood, Boston, Chattanooga, and elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. However, there have been just as many stories of inspiration, and NASA has worked to continue to counter the message of hate – with one of hope.

“We flew an American flag recovered at Ground Zero and returned it to New York where it’s on display at the American Museum of Natural History,” NASA’s Bob Jacobs told SpaceFlight Insider. “NASA has also provided an American flag that has been flown in space to every family of the 9/11 victims in New York, D.C., and PA.”

Video courtesy of NASA


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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