Astronaut coming home to world that has changed a lot

Monday, December 17, 2001

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- After four months off the planet, former space station commander Frank Culbertson realizes he has a lot of catching up to do, especially since he's coming back to a changed world.

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. "I'm sure there's a stack of magazines and things waiting for me. But I will learn as we go. People want me to talk, and I want them to talk."

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. Air Force officials won't divulge details, but insist the protection will be "appropriate."

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

Three 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 spacemen on their return.

Twenty-seven years later, cosmonaut 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 morning, and the dark smoke was clearly visible from 250 miles up.

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