Astronaut recalls 9/11 attacks, whose aftermath he saw from space

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Astronaut Frank Culbertson was the sole American in outer space at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was aboard the International Space Station and had no access to TV or information about what was happening other than what NASA told him.

“Frank, we’re not having a good day here on Earth,” Culbertson recalls the space agency telling him early that day.

He shares his memories of all he did and saw that day in a video, above, titled “9/11 A Perspective From Space” that was recently posted on the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex‘s YouTube channel.


What Culbertson saw was extraordinary, though he couldn’t understand exactly what the sequence of events was. The Russian cosmonauts who orbited with him offered comfort and shared news from what they learned of the attacks from their own ground communicators.

He videotaped as much as he could from outer space as he passed over New York City and Washington, D.C., having been told about planes striking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon being attacked.

Then, he said, “I saw this big gray blob developing over the southern part of Manhattan. And what I was seeing was the second tower come down,” though he didn’t know that at the time, Culbertson says in the video.

The next day, the news didn’t get any better.

Culbertson learned that his U.S. Naval Academy classmate Charles “Chic” Burlingame had been the captain of American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.

And that’s where things get personal. The video shows the astronaut playing taps (he had brought his trumpet with him into space) in honor of his fallen friend.