What 9/11 Looked Like to the One American Who Watched It From Space

Former Navy captain Frank Culbertson reflects on his experience aboard the ISS during the events of September 11th.

When five al-Qaida hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, astronaut Frank Culbertson was one month into his stay aboard the International Space Station. The former Navy captain and commander of the Expedition 3 mission watched in horror, 220 miles above the island of Manhattan, as the events of September 11th unfolded on the surface below.

“I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members,” recalled Culbertson in a letter published in the days following the terrorist attacks. “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. “

Accompanied only by Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, Culbertson was the only American off-planet at the time. “The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming,” wrote Culbertson. “I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world. Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us.”

“It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point,” he continued. “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.”

In a video published by NASA in May 2013, Culbertson reflected on his experience aboard the ISS during that horrific day: