September 11, 2001 as experienced on the International Space Station


On September 11, 2001, US astronaut Frank L. Culbertson watched the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks from the International Space Station. He wrote up his experience that day and the days following in a letter posted on NASA's site:

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.

"Astronaut Frank Culbertson Letter from September 11, 2001" (Thanks, Ari Pescovitz!)


  1. Its weird thinking of them up there as powerless as the rest of us but with a view that shows the true scale of the disaster.

    Its also interesting that he was listening to Tom Clancy (book), I wonder if it was the one that Clancy wrote about a terrorist flying a plane into the capitol building during an emergency joint session of congress.
    That came out a good 7 years before 9/11/01

    1. And don’t forget the pilot episode of 7 days, where he goes back in time to stop some terrorists from flying a plane load of explosives into the White House.
      Sometimes when I’m dreaming I think that we are living in a world where Frank Parker went back in time and stopped Flight 93 since that was the one that took out the White House in the first time line.

      Of course I also think about the timeline in which Al Gore is President because Mr. Parker went back in time and fixed the butterfly ballot.

      I live in the universe where Bush won. That is why I have a goatee.

  2. I like that quote from the one astronaut that looking at the Earth changes your perspective and he wished that politicians could see it from where he could.

    I hope one day orbital flights and space elevators can change a potential terrorist or anyone that holds backward ideologies… 

    1. You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.” 
      -Edgar Mitchell

      I also immediately thought of this quote when I saw this picture.

  3. Can’t help but think of the international space station chapter in World War Z. Must be so incredibly strange to be so disconnected from such a global event.

    1. Can’t remember that one.  Must re-read.

      I am reminded, however, of that bit toward the end of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, including The Off Season, The Watchers, and The Silent Towns, when the human colonists of Mars see, from their new Red-Planet home, global nuclear war breaking out on Earth.  And (for reasons that I never personally bought), nearly all of them feel compelled to go back home to their presumably destroyed home planet.

      Bradbury always was remarkably sentimental, but it seems to me that interplanetary colonists can’t really afford to be.  But what the hell: The Watchers concerns the luggage salesman whose entire stock is sold out to the returning colonists, and The Off Season is essentially a shaggy-dog story about a fella who goes to some length to establish the first hot-dog stand on Mars, only to realize during his grand opening that all of his potential customers are going back to Earth.

      Yeah, that’s Ray Bradbury for ya.

  4. The whole world stopped that day, and you can barely (if at all) even see what stopped it from orbit. Thousands of people died in that little dot. Heavy.

  5. The shape and form of the landscape looks like a scary giant head with police sunglasses, freaky tiny hanging nose, its mouth opened about to eat a piece of something, its teeth crooked, and smoke coming out from the fire burning in the depth of its throat…

  6.   Seeing that plume of smoke heading south past Sandy Hook brings it back to me… I was working at Fort Monmouth, going to meetings and hearing weird comments from everyone – I kept thinking that it was some mistake, trick, or accident.

      It got real when I went outside and smelled that smoke (from about 30 miles away).  Luckily it smelled mostly like burning paper, but with strange metallic notes.  I knew that it couldn’t be anything else…

      The fort was closed and everyone sent home for a few days fearing an attack there – except for me and a few other “essential personnel”.  Strange days.  Still, “keep calm and carry on” – can’t let the idiots run your life.

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