We talk a lot about the value of music and arts programs in our schools. About the life skills learned: leadership, teamwork and responsibility. I want to talk about something much simpler: lasting friendships and a pure love of music.

In the late 1960’s two young men entered the U.S. Naval Academy at the same time. Their friendship started while playing alongside each other in the Navy’s Drum and Bugle Corps and it grew during their Academy days. After graduation, they maintained their friendship and each went on to distinguished careers as military pilots. In a tragic twist of fate, Charles Burlingame and Frank Culbertson, Jr. each played a unique role in one of our nation’s darkest days.


On September 11, 2001, Charles Burlingame was the captain of American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. Frank Culbertson didn’t learn about his friend’s fate until the next day. That’s because Culbertson was an astronaut living on the International Space Station at the time: the only American who wasn’t actually on the planet on September 11. Culbertson learned about the events of that day from NASA flight surgeons during a routine call to Earth. In spite of his feelings of isolation being the only American in space, he had a unique vantage point of the aftermath in New York as captured in this video.

In a letter written to the public on September 12, he wrote, “Tears don’t flow the same in space. 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.”

There’s another remarkable side to this story.  When preparing for this mission, Culbertson was extremely limited in the personal items he could bring with him.  He had decided to bring his trumpet. Thirty years after his marching days, he wanted the ability to make music to bring him the comforts of home.

When he packed his trumpet, Culbertson had no way of knowing that his love of music would allow him to pay tribute to his friend. Burlingame and Culbertson’s 30th class reunion was scheduled for later that month. Instead of the video he had intended to make sending greetings from space, Culbertson played “Taps” in honor of Charles “Chic” Burlingame.

It was music that brought two friends together.  It was music that would bring the comforts of home to a lonely astronaut. It was music that ultimately brought a different kind of comfort, allowing one friend to say goodbye to another.  “Put out the lights. Go to sleep.” (Read More)

(Photo courtesy of NASA)