Never Forget: What Astronauts Saw on the Worst Day in US History

Never Forget What Astronauts Saw on the Worst Day in US History

Nearly every American over the age of perhaps 25 remembers exactly where they were on 9/11. For one veteran named Frank Culbertson, it would have been impossible to forget even if a terrorist attack hadn’t occurred.

Culbertson was the only American orbiting earth when the planes struck the World Trade Center.

He and two Russian cosmonauts were 250 miles above the surface aboard the International Space Station on that fateful day. While others were glued to their television sets, the astronaut was able to see the dramatic smoke plumes rise from New York City all the way from space.

A flight surgeon quietly informed Culbertson about the attack over the radio that morning.

“He described the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT,” the astronaut and U.S. Navy pilot wrote for the NASA archive. “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.”

In the days before space station occupants had full-time access to the internet, the three men peered out of the orbiting windows to see a sobering vista.

“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,” Culbertson recalled.

“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.”

Check out Culbertson’s story here. The images he shot start appearing about the 2:45 mark.

A gray haze over New York City made the disaster all too real.

“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,” the astronaut wrote.

While recalling the traumatic day several years later, Culbertson added a particularly interesting piece of information: He was able to watch President George W. Bush zig-zag his way across the country while heading back to the nation’s capital aboard Air Force One.

“Every orbit we kept trying to see more of what was happening,” Culbertson said, according to

“One of the most startling effects was that within about two orbits, all of the contrails that are normally crisscrossing the United States has disappeared because they had grounded all the airplanes and there was nobody else flying in U.S. airspace — except for one airplane that was leaving a contrail from the central U.S. toward Washington, and that was Air Force One headed back to D.C. with President Bush. It was a very sobering time for us.”

Another sobering moment came when the Navy veteran found out that one of his Naval Academy classmates had been killed. Charles “Chic” Burlingame was the pilot at the controls of American Airlines Flight 77 when it was hijacked. That aircraft was used to strike the Pentagon. As we now know, nobody on board survived.

Every year, Sept. 11, 2001, fades ever more gradually from memory — but unique perspectives such as Frank Culbertson’s help us understand the global impact of the tragic events, and help ensure that we as a nation never forget.

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H/T Task and Purpose