On September 11, 2001, Frank Culbertson was aboard the International Space Station, making him the only American not on Earth at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Despite being dazed by the tragedy happening in his home country below, the former NASA astronaut and Expedition 3 Commander of the ISS began documenting the event from his vantage point: Outer space.
The ISS orbits about 250 miles above the Earth, and from that vantage point, Culbertson captured photographs of the dark gray smoke streaming from Ground Zero in New York City in the minutes and hours following the attack on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
“The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city,” Culbertson shared in a letter following the events. “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.”
“I didn’t know exactly what was happening but I knew it was really bad because there was a big cloud of debris covering Manhattan,” Culbertson shared in a NASA video in 2011. “That’s when it really became painful because it was like seeing a wound in the side of your country, of your family, your friends.”
“It was like seeing a wound in the side of your country”
Culbertson couldn’t see any other visible smoke when panning the rest of the East Coast, specifically around Washington D.C.
A few hours following the terrorist attack, the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite shows the vegetation (red), concrete (light blue-white), and the surrounding bodies of water (black). The slightly darker blue pixels show the smoke and debris moving toward New Jersey.
The following day, Culbertson wrote “tears don’t flow the same in space,” as he learned his Naval Academy classmate Charles “Chic” Burlingame had been the pilot of the hijacked plane that was flown into the Pentagon. His reflections from September 12, 2001 gave a glimpse of the difficulty of experiencing a tragedy so far removed from society:
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.
The smoke could be seen by NASA satellites in the days following 9/11, contextualizing the magnitude of such horrific acts of terror.
Whether we were able to understand it at the time, Culbertson was right when he said, “Life goes on, even in space. We’re here to stay.”