The only American not on Earth this day 13 years ago was retired U.S. Navy captain and NASA Expedition 3 commander Frank Culbertson.
While orbiting the globe in the International Space Station, Culbertson snapped a photo of smoke billowing above New York City.
“I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I knew it was really bad because there was a big cloud of debris covering Manhattan,” Culbertson said in a NASA video on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Culbertson, along with Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, had a unique vantage point on the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are,” Culberston wrote.
Here is a video of what they saw and Culbertson’s message to the world from space.
I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members. In a private conversation following that, the flight surgeon told me they were having a very bad day on the ground. I had no idea … He described the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT. I was flabbergasted, then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn’t a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes. It just didn’t seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn’t even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further destruction began coming in. Vladimir came over pretty quickly, sensing that something very serious was being discussed. I waved Michael into the module as well. They were also amazed and stunned. After we signed off, I tried to explain to Vladimir and Michael as best I could the potential magnitude of this act of terror in downtown Manhattan and at the Pentagon. They clearly understood and were very sympathetic. I glanced at the World Map on the computer to see where over the world we were and noticed that we were coming southeast out of Canada and would be passing over New England in a few minutes. I zipped around the station until I found a window that would give me a view of NYC and grabbed the nearest camera. It happened to be a video camera, and I was looking south from the window of Michael’s cabin. The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I believe we were looking at NY around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. How horrible.
Over the next few days and still from his outpost in space, Culbertson slowly started to receive more information of what happened on Sept. 11. Revealing a sense of helplessness and isolation, Culbertson describes the moment he found out his friend and pilot Chic Burlingame perished on the hijacked American Airlines flight 77 that hit the Pentagon.
“I met Chic during plebe summer when we were in the D&B together, and we had lots of classes together. I can’t imagine what he must of gone through, and now I hear that he may have risen further than we can even think of by possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. What a terrible loss, but I’m sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. And tears don’t flow the same in space,” Culbertson wrote.
Two months later NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour launched 6,000 American flags in honour of the families of 9/11 victims. That same mission also flew flags recovered from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and from the crash site in Pennsylvania.
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