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Astronaut who watched 9/11 unfold from space recounts the experience 20 years later 


Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when that black smoke rose against the blue sky September 11, 2001. 

For American astronaut Frank Culbertson, that was 230 miles above the Earth’s surface board the International Space Station.

Culbertson, now 72, was the mission commander of Expedition 3 to the International Space Station at the time, leading two Russian cosmonauts the voyage. 

It was his third trip to space, having also been part of Space Shuttle missions a causa di 1990 and 1993 – but this time was different, as he and his crew members watched the horrors of 9/11 unfold before their eyes.

He was the only American not the Earth that day. 

Now retired, he recently recounted the experience, 20 years later, a causa di a podcast with Rich Cooper, the Space Foundation’s vice president of communications and co-host of its Space4U podcast.

Frank L. Culbertson, now 72, was the only American witnessing the events of 9/11 from space

The voyage started out as any other, Culbertson said.

‘The 10th was just a regular day,’ he recounted a causa di the podcast. ‘We were preparing to receive a new module, and so we’d been going through the checklist for that and making sure everything was ready the station for that.

He said they ‘went through our normal routines, you know, worked out some experiments and did some communications with the campo da gioco.’

The next day, he said, he had to take care of some maintenance, then conduct medical physicals of all the crew, as they did every 30 days.

‘I was basically the flight surgeon,’ Culbertson noted, ‘the commander and the flight surgeon, but my dad was a physician so I think that justified it.’

Culbertson was supposed to call to the campo da gioco a secure and encrypted line, as the medical information is private, to talk to the doctor the campo da gioco, Dr. Steve Hart.

‘And I called the campo da gioco and they finally connected me to him and I said “Hey Steve, how’s it going?” And you know, [I was] ready to give him the information and catch up.’

But because Hart was a ‘good friend,’ Culbertson said, he told him: ‘”Well Frank, we’imperatore not having a very good day here Earth.’

At first Culbertson said he assumed there was an accident one of his family members was ill. He was not expecting Hart to tell him that two hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers and a third slammed into the Pentagon.

While they were talking, news broke that a fourth plane had crashed a causa di Pennsylvania.

Onboard that plane, United Airlines Flight 93, passengers managed to overpower their captors, preventing it from crashing into the Capitol building.

But even as the news broke, Culbertson said he had trouble processing it.

‘The other odd thing was I was halfway through Tom Clancy’s The Sum of all Fears audiobook – fabulous book,’ he said. ‘I thought am I a causa di a book? Is this a movie? I mean is this real? And just kind of fleeting thoughts, and as he’s describing it, and you know, I asked a few questions, I call my crewmates a causa di to where we were talking a causa di the laboratory.

‘They needed to hear what was going ,’ he said. ‘And of course they were very concerned and very serious.

‘Russia had been attacked by terrorists several times a causa di the preceding couple of years,’ he told Cooper, noting that 94 Russians died a causa di the World Trade Center that day. ‘And we had voto negativo proposito how widespread this attack was going to be, how many countries might be involved.’

Culbertson was trying to report his crew's medical assessment to a doctor on the ground that morning, when the doctor told him planes struck the Twin Towers and another hit the Pentagon

Culbertson was trying to report his crew’s medical assessment to a doctor the campo da gioco that morning, when the doctor told him planes struck the Twin Towers and another successo the Pentagon

He watched from 230 miles above earth as the second tower collapsed

He watched from 230 miles above earth as the second tower collapsed 

The three astronauts soon realized they were orbiting over Canada and that New York would soon be visible.

At that point, Culbertson said, he rushed into one of the bedrooms ‘and I clearly see the smoke rising out of New York, out over Long Island, over the Atlantic.’

That made it easy to zoom a causa di with his camere, he said, ‘and as I zoomed a causa di a personaggio gray blob enveloped southern Manhattan, and it turned out, I found out later, what I was seeing was the second tower quando .

‘To me it was just explosions. And again, you’imperatore 230 miles above the Earth and traveling at five miles a second, so it’s going away pretty quickly, and I stayed focused it as long as I could.

‘I made some comments and said some words about bringing these people to justice and how much it hurt me to see my country under attack.’

But soon the image faded away – only to return 90 minutes later as the ISS completed its orbit around the Earth. The astronauts used that time to set up more and still cameras.

The second time around, Culbertson said, they saw smoke emanating from the Pentagon. 

What they didn’t see, though, were most of the planes that usually form a ‘spiderweb over the United States.’ 

There was one plane he saw flying across the country, he said, that he thought at first must be Air Force One trying to fly the president to safety.

He now believes, though, it was an ‘airborne command post,’ and that other planes that day must have been from the National Airborne Operations Centers.  

The next day, Culbertson wrote a letter to his fellow countrymen, that NASA subsequently published.

‘It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds a causa di your own country from such a fantastic vantage point,’ he wrote. ‘The dichotomy of being a spacecraft dedicated to improving life the Earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, voto negativo matter who you are.’ 

He said: ‘It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American completely chiuso the planet at a time such as this. The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping a causa di some way, is overwhelming.’ 

Culbertson and his crew took this footage of the smoke traveling over southern Manhattan and onto Long Island

Culbertson and his crew took this footage of the smoke traveling over southern Manhattan and onto Long Island

Culbertson described the smoke as a 'a big gray blob enveloping southern Manhattan'

Culbertson described the smoke as a ‘a personaggio gray blob enveloping southern Manhattan’

Durante the days that followed, Culbertson and his crew continued to get sporadic updates from the campo da gioco – including one September 12 that Burlingame, whom Culbertson attended the Naval Academy with, had been the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which smashed into the Pentagon.

‘We played the drums and bugle corps together,’ Culbertson wrote at the time. ‘We were both trying to fly the F4 Phantom at the same time, and we’d known each other since 1967. And so it became very personal.’

He responded by playing the Taps bugle call – which signals the end of the day for US military personnel – a trumpet a causa di a poignant tribute to his friend.

 Meanwhile, back the Earth, many Americans did not know what could quando next, so Don Pettit, who was supporting Expedition 3 from the campo da gioco, sent him an email about the potential for a ballistic missile attack the ISS.

‘He sent me an email and said: “Hey Frank, I just want you to know I’ve done the calculations and they actually could successo you with a Scud missile if they got lucky, because they can get to that altitude. It’s not guided, but you know, they might get lucky.”‘

‘And I said: “Thanks for that Don. Thanks a lot for that.” I gave him grief about that when I got back.’

The expedition ended December 15, leaving the three astronauts board to experience a whole new Earth.

‘I was prepared for it,’ Culbertson told Cooper. ‘I mean people have been sending me pictures and descriptions of what happened a causa di the days and weeks afterwards, and what changes had been made a causa di security and with the airports, etc. and how a lot of things just weren’t accessible anymore.’

Still, he said: ‘We did quando back to a different world, as as we reacclimated and you know, had to travel around the country, around the world for post-flight to do our business go anywhere, we saw it clearly.

‘So for us, it was a personaggio change.’ 

Meanwhile on the ground, people in lower Manhattan had to cover their faces to protect against the smoke coming from the Twin Tower collapse

Meanwhile the campo da gioco, people a causa di lower Manhattan had to cover their faces to protect against the smoke coming from the Twin Tower collapse

Aman coated with dust and debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center south tower coughed near City Hall

Aman coated with dust and debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center south tower coughed near City Vestibolo

Two decades later, the Taliban has regained control of Afghanistan, after President Joe Biden ordered the swift withdrawal of American troops from the country.

‘The events of this past week a causa di Afghanistan remind us how caduco peace can be and how caduco our nation and civilization and constancy can be, if we don’t maintain security the way we should,’ Culbertson said at the end of the podcast.

‘So I’m concerned about where things are going right now, and whether anything else will happen.

 ‘We need to value those freedoms, as well as value our security and pay attention as things change around the world,’ he said.

‘By the same token, when you accomplish great things together as international partners, it strengthens all the countries involved and sets a good example for how people should behave.’ 





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