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Astronaut will return to a changed world

©Associated Press
December 17, 2001

CAPE CANAVERAL -- After four months off the planet, former space station commander Frank Culbertson realizes he has a lot of catching up to do.

His mission, which began one month and one day before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is scheduled to end today when space shuttle Endeavour lands.

"I know there are a lot of details that I wasn't able to get, just because of the magnitude of them," the astronaut said over the weekend.

Because of the ongoing war and lingering fears of terrorism, Endeavour's touchdown will be surrounded by more security than usual, as did its Dec. 5 launch.

Culbertson, who left the international space station Saturday, isn't the first space traveler to return to a dramatically altered homeland.

Three Russian cosmonauts were in orbit for just one day in October 1964. But during those 24 hours, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was deposed and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who greeted the cosmonauts on their return to Moscow.

Twenty-seven years later, Sergei Krikalev was aboard Mir when the Communist-led Soviet Union collapsed. By the time his 10-month mission ended in 1992, his hometown of Leningrad had become St. Petersburg. Krikalev, coincidentally, was one of the first inhabitants of the international space station.

Culbertson and his two Russian crewmates, Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, witnessed the devastation at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The space station passed almost directly overhead that tragic morning, and the dark smoke was clearly visible from 250 miles up.

"That was a horrible thing to see from space, to know that terrible things were happening on Earth like that and we were so far away from our own families," Culbertson said.

Mission Control sent as much information as possible to Culbertson and his crew via e-mail. But as the 52-year-old retired Navy captain noted Sunday, "We can only get a small amount at a time, not nearly as much as people were inundated with down on Earth."

"It affected us over several days," Culbertson recalled. "Every morning when I'd open the mail, there'd be some new piece of information that would hit me pretty hard."

Now that they're on their way home, they can finally relax and feel good about all they accomplished.

The father of five also takes comfort, and pleasure, knowing he'll be home for Christmas.

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