Frank Culbertson is the answer to an odd and, admittedly, a little morbid trivia question: The NASA astronaut was the only American not on Earth on September 11, 2001. And from his vantage point on the International Space Station, Culbertson was able to take the photo below, 16 years ago today.
Culbertson took the photo while the ISS passed 250 miles over Manhattan. Even from that distance, a massive debris cloud was visible emanating from the site of the World Trade Center. In a video made for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Culbertson talked about what he saw using familiar language to describe 9/11: “It was like seeing a wound in the side of your country, of your family, your friends.” Culbertson had been on the International Space Station for a day short of a month when he took the photo.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Culbertson would learn that his Naval Academy classmate Charles Burlingame had been the pilot of the plane that was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon. Culbertson spent another three months on the ISS — which, with all due respect to his crewmates, must have been three of the loneliest, strangest months any human has experienced — before returning to Earth on December 17. This was his final trip into space.
NASA shared another moving image on Monday: Flags from Florida’s spaceport were sewn into the American flag recovered from near the World Trade Center, aka “ground zero,” for artwork that came to be known as the “National 9/11 Flag.”