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Pic: Rare view of 9/11 from space captured by Navy aviator 22 years ago

International Space Station (NASA/Crew of STS-132)
September 11, 2023

Navy Aviator Capt. Frank Lee Culbertson’s view of 9/11 was different from any other U.S. service member, as Culbertson viewed the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks from space.

Culbertson documented his experience of 9/11 in a letter while separated from his fellow service members aboard the International Space Station. At the time, Culbertson was about a month into his time as commander of the International Space Station’s Expedition 3 mission.

After completing various tasks on the morning of 9/11, Culbertson said the flight surgeon notified him that there was “a very bad day on the ground.” While the details were not all clear at first, Culbertson said the flight surgeon described the events of 9/11 “as best he knew it.”

“I was flabbergasted, then horrified,” the Navy aviator said. “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.”

According to Task and Purpose, Culbertson and his fellow crew members on the International Space Station viewed the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks from 220 miles above the surface of the earth when the International Space Station passed over the location of the wreckage.

“It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point,” Culbertson said. “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.”

In his letter, Culbertson described the view from space of smoke streaming up from New York City. He said the smoke “seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column.”

Based on information the International Space Station received at the time, Culbertson claimed to have witnessed the devastation in New York City from space roughly around the time the second tower collapsed.

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Experiencing the events of 9/11 from the International Space Station, Culbertson documented the flood of emotions he experienced as the only U.S. service member who was in space during the terrorist attacks.

“Other than the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands of our citizens and maybe some friends being killed, the most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation,” he said.