Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when that black smoke rose against the blue sky on September 11, 2001.
For American astronaut Frank Culbertson, that was 230 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard 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 on the journey.
It was his third trip to space, also part of Space Shuttle missions in 1990 and 1993 — but this time was different, as he and his crew members watched the horrors of 9/11 unfold before their very eyes.
He was the only American not on Earth that day.
Now retired, he recently recounted the experience 20 years later in a podcast with Rich Cooper, the Space Foundation’s vice president of communications and co-host of his Space4U podcast.
Frank L. Culbertson, now 72, was the only American to witness the events of 9/11 from space
The journey started like any other, Culbertson said.
“The 10th was just an ordinary day,” he told the podcast. “We were preparing to receive a new module, so we went through the checklist before that and made sure everything was ready at the station.
He said they “went through our normal routines, you know, doing some experiments and doing some ground communication.”
The next day, he said, he had to do some maintenance and then perform medical checkups on all crew members, as they did every 30 days.
“I was actually the flight surgeon,” Culbertson noted, “the commander and the flight surgeon, but my father was a doctor, so I think that was justified.”
Culbertson had to call the ground using a secure and encrypted line, since the medical information is private, to talk to the doctor on the ground, Dr. Steve Hart, to talk.
“And I called the ground and they finally put me in touch with him and I said, ‘Hey Steve, how are you?’ And you know, [I was] ready to give him the information and catch up.’
But since Hart was a “good friend,” Culbertson said, he told him, “Well Frank, we’re not having such a good day here on Earth.”
At first, Culbertson said he assumed there had been an accident or that one of his relatives was ill. He didn’t expect Hart to tell him that two hijacked planes had hit the Twin Towers and a third hit the Pentagon.
While they were talking, news came that a fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania.
Aboard that plane, United Airlines Flight 93, passengers managed to overpower their captors so it wouldn’t crash into the Capitol.
But even when the news broke, Culbertson said he was having a hard time coming to terms with it.
“The other weird thing was that I was halfway through Tom Clancy’s The Sum of all Fears on audiobook—great book,” he said. ‘I thought am I in 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 crew members where we were talking in the lab.
“They needed to hear what was going on,” he said. “And of course they were very concerned and very serious.
“Russia had been attacked by terrorists several times in recent years,” he told Cooper, noting that 94 Russians died in the World Trade Center that day. “And we had no idea how widespread this attack would be, how many countries could 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 that planes had hit the Twin Towers and another the Pentagon.
He watched from 230 miles above the earth as the second tower collapsed
The three astronauts soon realized that they were circling Canada and that New York would soon be visible.
At that moment, Culbertson said, he ran into one of the bedrooms “and I can clearly see the smoke rising from New York, over Long Island, over the Atlantic.”
That made it easy to zoom in with his camera, he said, “and as I zoomed in, a large gray blob enveloped southern Manhattan, and it turned out, I later found out, what I saw was the second tower coming down.” .
“To me it was just explosions. And again, you’re 230 miles above the Earth traveling at five miles per second, so it goes away pretty quickly, and I stayed focused on it for as long as I could.
“I made some comments and said something about bringing these people to justice and how much it hurt me to see my country under attack.”
But the image soon faded – only to return 90 minutes later as the ISS completed its orbit around Earth. The astronauts used that time to set up more video and still cameras.
The second time, Culbertson said, they saw smoke coming out of the Pentagon.
What they didn’t see, however, were most of the planes that commonly form a “spider web over the United States.”
There was one plane he saw flying across the country, he said, which he initially thought must be Air Force One trying to get the president to safety.
However, he now believes it was an “airborne command post” and other aircraft must have been from the National Airborne Operations Centers that day.
The next day, Culbertson wrote a letter to his compatriots, which NASA subsequently published.
“It is horrifying to see smoke pouring out of wounds from such a fantastic vantage point,” he wrote. “The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on Earth and seeing life destroyed by such deliberate, horrific acts shocks the psyche, whoever you are.”
He said: ‘It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be the only American who is completely off the planet at a time like this. The feeling that I should be there with all of you to deal with this, to help in one way or another, is overwhelming.”
Culbertson and his crew captured these images of the smoke traveling over southern Manhattan to Long Island
Culbertson described the smoke as a ‘great gray blob enveloping southern Manhattan’
In the days that followed, Culbertson and his crew continued to get sporadic updates off the ground — including one on Sept. 12 that Chic Burlingame, with whom Culbertson attended the Naval Academy, had piloted American Airlines Flight 77, which collapsed into the Pentagon.
“We played drums and flugelhorn corps together,” Culbertson wrote at the time. “We both tried to fly the F4 Phantom at the same time and we’ve known each other since 1967. And so it got very personal.”
He responded by playing the Taps bugle call—which means the end of the day for American servicemen—on a trumpet as a poignant tribute to his friend.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, many Americans didn’t know what might be coming, so Don Pettit, who supported Expedition 3 from the ground, emailed him about the potential for a ballistic missile attack on the ISS.
“He emailed me and said, “Hey Frank, I just want you to know I’ve done the calculations and they can actually hit you with a Scud missile if they’re lucky, because they can get to that height.” It’s not guided, but you know, they might be lucky.”‘
“And I said, ‘Thank you for that, Don. Thank you so much for that.’ I made him sad about that when I got back.’
The expedition ended on December 15, leaving the three astronauts on board to experience an entirely new Earth.
“I was prepared for it,” Culbertson told Cooper. “I mean, people sent me pictures and descriptions of what happened in the days and weeks after that, and what changes had been made to security and to the airports, etc. and how many things were just inaccessible.”
Still he said, “We came back to another world because we were re-acclimatized and you know we had to travel across the country, around the world for a mail flight or to do our business or go somewhere, we saw it clear .
“So it was a big change for us.”
Culbertson played Taps on his bugle on September 16, 2001 in honor of his friend Chic Burlingame who was killed in the attacks
Meanwhile, in lower Manhattan, people on the ground had to cover their faces to protect themselves from the smoke billowing from the collapse of the Twin Tower.
Aman covered in dust and debris from the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center coughed near City Hall
Two decades later, the Taliban have regained control of Afghanistan after President Joe Biden ordered the rapid withdrawal of US troops from the country.
“The events of the past week in Afghanistan are a reminder of how fragile peace can be and how fragile our nation and civilization and steadfastness can be if we don’t maintain security as we should,” Culbertson said at the end of the podcast.
“So I’m worried about where things are going now and if anything else is going to happen.
“We must value those freedoms as well as our security and pay attention to the changes in the world,” he said.
‘If you achieve great things together as international partners, it simultaneously strengthens all the countries involved and sets a good example of how people should behave.’