ISS Astronaut Recalls Photo Taken On 9/11

International Space Station Commander Frank Culbertson was the only American on the ISS during the 9/11 terrorist attack.

9/11 Smoke Plume
Frank Culbertson / NASA

International Space Station Commander Frank Culbertson was the only American on the ISS during the 9/11 terrorist attack.

When Station Commander Frank Culbertson started his shift on the morning of September 11, 2001, he was the only American stationed on the ISS. According to a letter he sent to NASA the next day, he handled a few chores in his normal routine, including giving physical exams to the rest of the crew. When he finished with that, the flight surgeon asked to speak with him privately, and he received the news that “they were having a very bad day on the ground.”

As information trickled in to them from the planet below, Culbertson checked the world map to see where they were, and as it happened, they were just about to pass over New England from the northwest. He found a window in the ISS where he would be able to see New York when they passed over it, and he made sure he had a camera with him.

The photo he took is the one at the beginning of this article and was taken about the time the second tower was attacked. The international crew worked to take other photos on subsequent passes and provided Culbertson with support and sympathy as he took in the enormity of what had happened in Manhattan, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

The next day, Culbertson finished his letter to NASA, being sure to record his feelings about the horrible event. The overriding emotion he felt was isolation, he wrote, adding the following near the end of the letter.

“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.”

The historical significance of Culbertson’s photo cannot be denied, and as the ISS continues to fly, its occupants continue to take pictures. Realizing the usefulness of the unique perspective provided by space, NASA formed the Earth Science Disaster Program to provide top-down perspectives on natural and technological disasters. Currently, the program is engaged in monitoring hurricane Florence.

This year on 9/11, NASA posted a different picture of Manhattan on Twitter, countering the smoky images of 17 years ago with an image of a city — and country — that has done its best to heal and carry on.