One of a series of pictures of metropolitan New York City taken by one of the Expedition Three crew members onboard the International Space Station (ISS) at various times during the day on September 11, 2001. A smoke plume rises from the Manhattan area where the World Trade Center was destroyed. The orbital outpost was flying at an altitude of approximately 250 miles. Image: NASA
The terrorist attacks that shook the United States 10 years ago had effects that reached all the way into space.
Not only did the events of Sept. 11, 2001, prompt NASA to immediately beef up its already strict security procedures, they forced military space officials to reassess their priorities regarding space security and triggered a shift in space policy.
"There were certainly efforts made to link responding to terrorist threats to support for and expanding missile defense," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space policy analyst at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Before 9/11, space security concerns under President George W. Bush were largely focused on China, Johnson-Freese explained. Questions swirled around what kind of space hardware China was building, why, and how the United States should respond. [9/11 Remembered in Space Photos]
"The U.S. could pretty much answer the 'what' questions, but the others were more problematic," Johnson-Freese said. "China had questions about U.S. 'intent' – especially as concerned missile defense and rhetoric about 'space dominance' – and the U.S. had questions about Chinese 'intents.' Since most space technology is dual-use, determining what a country intends to use for civilian rather than military use, and what military hardware was defensive rather than offensive, is difficult."
A nation at war
Concerns about China did not go away following 9/11, but the focus of space security naturally shifted to Iraq and Afghanistan, “where space-force enhancement capabilities were required – communications, surveillance, etc.,” as the nation waged dual wars, Johnson-Freese said.
But the expansion of space security was itself hampered by the war effort, and “the costs of the war also meant that very expensive space systems were competing for funds to day-to-day operations,” she added.
As the country marks the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, the lingering effects of the attacks can still be felt, and many of the security measures that were introduced a decade ago either are still in place or have been expanded. [Remembering the Fallen: 9/11 Memorials Gallery]
At NASA, security, particularly during launches, has been heightened since 9/11.
"Everybody re-evaluated their security policies and practices, and we still do," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told SPACE.com. "Ten years later, we’re constantly re-evaluating security. As new threats come up, new countermeasures have come into place. It’s an ongoing process, and it's just the way of life in the post-9/11 world."
Shuttle launches after 9/11
Security at NASA has always been tight, particularly at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., from where the agency’s space shuttles launched into space for 30 years until the fleet's retirement last month. The Florida spaceport is also adjacent to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
"You always have to evaluate security measures, and we did that before the 9/11 attacks as well," Beutel said. "The space shuttles and human spaceflight have always been high-profile targets, if you think about it. The attacks didn’t change that; it just brought it into a new light."
Nearly three months after 9/11, the space shuttle Endeavour lifted off on its STS-108 mission to the International Space Station. The Dec. 5 launch occurred amid high security in cooperation with Air Force and other military personnel. [Photos of NASA's Last Space Shuttle Launch]