We Remember and We Will Never Forget

An Astronaut’s View on 9/11

On September 11th, 2001, a series of terrorist attacks shook America and the world.

2,979 people lost their lives after a group of 19 radical-Islamic al-Qaeda terrorists used 4 commercial jetliners to attack the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and one final plane that may have been heading to the White House.

The bravery of the passengers of United Flight 93 prevented another attack on a populated area. In New York and at the Pentagon in Virginia, first responders worked to save as many people as they could.

I was in the car and headed to school when the news broke on the radio. I spent the day with friends, huddled around the few computers we had in our classrooms, watching the updates come in as they became available.

I imagine that most everyone remembers what they were doing and where they were when they found out about the attack.

There was one American that was not on Earth during these attacks. Astronaut Frank Culbertson Jr. was the Commander of Expedition 3 to the International Space Station.

He found out about the attacks while contacting mission Control in Houston. Culbertson and his Russian crew mates then captured as many videos and pictures of the East Coast of the United States as they could.

The images that were taken of New York from space are haunting. Smoke and dust clouds from the twin towers were visible from hundreds of miles away in space; the wounds inflicted our nation made even more evident by the cloudless skies on that day.

The World Trade Center seen from the ISS on 9/11. Picture credit- NASA https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/iss003e5387_feature.html

Culbertson was interviewed about his experience and I recommend you watch this video when you get a chance.


He also wrote a letter the day after the attack, which I’m including below.

September 12, 2001; 19:34 hours.

I haven’t written very much about specifics of this mission during the month I’ve been here, mainly for two reasons: the first being that there has been very little time to do that kind of writing, and secondly because I’m not sure how comfortable I am sharing thoughts I share with family and friends with the rest of the world.

Well, obviously the world changed today. What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked by …. by whom? Terrorists is all we know, I guess. Hard to know at whom to direct our anger and fear…

I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members. In a private conversation following that, the flight surgeon told me they were having a very bad day on the ground. I had no idea…

He described the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT. I was flabbergasted, then horrified. 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.

Vladimir came over pretty quickly, sensing that something very serious was being discussed. I waved Michael into the module as well. They were also amazed and stunned. After we signed off, I tried to explain to Vladimir and Michael as best I could the potential magnitude of this act of terror in downtown Manhattan and at the Pentagon. They clearly understood and were very sympathetic.

I glanced at the World Map on the computer to see where over the world we were and noticed that we were coming southeast out of Canada and would be passing over New England in a few minutes. I zipped around the station until I found a window that would give me a view of NYC and grabbed the nearest camera. It happened to be a video camera, and I was looking south from the window of Michael’s cabin.

The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city. 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. How horrible…

I panned the camera all along the East Coast to the south to see if I could see any other smoke around Washington, or anywhere else, but nothing was visible.

It was pretty difficult to think about work after that, though we had some to do, but on the next orbit we crossed the US further south. All three of us were working one or two cameras to try to get views of New York or Washington. There was haze over Washington, but no specific source could be seen. It all looked incredible from two to three hundred miles away. I can’t imagine the tragic scenes on the ground.

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.”


Written by

Hosts The Space Shot & The Cosmosphere Podcast. Podcaster. Techie. Bibliophile. Space science & history nerd.

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