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The only American not on Earth remembers 9/11

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION — Commander Frank Culbertson was the only American not on planet earth during the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.

Culbertson was accompanied by two Russian Cosmonauts and was the mission commander on Expedition Three. It was only the third group of astronauts to take up a long-term residence aboard the new International Space Station.

 

(June 2001) — Taking a break from a busy training schedule to pose for a portrait are the crew members for Expedition Three, scheduled to replace the current cosmonaut/astronaut trio aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Astronaut Frank L. Culbertson, Jr. (center), commander, is flanked by cosmonauts Mikhail Tyurin (left) and Vladimir Dezhurov, both flight engineers representing Rosaviakosmos. The three will accompany the STS-105 crew into Earth orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery this summer to begin their lengthy stay on the orbital outpost. Credit: NASA

Expedition Three left Earth on August 10th aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and took over operations on the Space Station three days later. They would spend 117 days on the ISS and complete four spacewalks.

The day the world changed

For Culbertson, there was one day of that expedition he would always remember: September, 11th 2001.

“The world changed today,” Culbertson wrote in a public letter shared from space. “What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked by …. by whom? Terrorists is all we know, I guess. Hard to know at whom to direct our anger and fear…”

Culbertson who was the only American on that trip to the Space Station said that on the morning of the 11th things went according to schedule. They were performing their required tasks and following their normal routines.

After finishing up with the most time consuming of the tasks, Culbertson was reporting back to the flight surgeon when he learned about what was happening 300 miles below them.

“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.

Views of the destruction from space

“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.”

He along with his two Russian crew mates grabbed as many cameras as they could and tried to get views of New York or Washington. They were able to capture the only video and photographs of the event from space.

“It all looked incredible from two to three hundred miles away. I can’t imagine the tragic scenes on the ground,” he continued.

A classmate, a hero

Culbertson was a former naval officer and test pilot and one of his classmates from the US Naval Academy was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon.

“I learned that the Captain of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon was Chic Burlingame, a classmate of mine. 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.”

A lonely vantage point

What was it like to be the only American in space at the time of the attacks?

“It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American completely off the planet at a time such as this. The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming. 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. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately.

“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. And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting.

Confidence in our country

“I have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done. I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much. I can’t be there with you in person, and we have a long way to go to complete our mission, but be certain that my heart is with you, and know you are in my prayers.”

You can read the full text of Commander Culbertson’s letter here.

NASA would go on to fly nearly 6,000 small American flags in December of 2001 in space to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Later, flags from the ‘Flags for Heroes and Families’ campaign were presented to the relatives of the victims.

Dan Goldin, then NASA administrator, said those flags were a “patriotic symbol of our strength and solidarity, and our nation’s resolve to prevail.”