Astronaut on 9/11: "Tears don't flow the same in space."

It's been 10 years since that horrific day when commercial airlines were used as coordinated weapons of terrorism. I was a second year graduate student at the time, balancing academic and research duties between expeditions to the South Pacific and the Antarctic. Like most Americans, I spent September 11, 2001 feeling shellshocked as I awoke to the news and spent the day watching events unfold on television. I later realized how profound and ubiquitous this communal experience was the world over, and I mean that quite literally.

One American has the singular distinction of witnessing the traumatic 9/11 events unfold from space. A month into his mission as Commander of ISS Expedition 3, Astronaut Frank Culbertson awoke to the news of the attacks like so many of us did. He grabbed the nearest camera and starting photographing the scenes in New York and Washington, D.C. from his vantage point some 250 miles over the Earth. Since he happened to be using a video camera, Culbertson also recorded audio commentary with his candid real-time reactions to what was happening. In his remarks, he juxtaposed descriptions of the destruction with reassurances that, in the wider context, these scars on the Earth are minor, "New York City is still very beautiful... The country still looks good." Only an astronaut could have made a statement like that on 9/11.

The Yahoo video! compiling NASA footage taken by Astronaut Culbertson is available below.

The day following the tramautic events, Commander Culbertson wrote a touching letter, describing his personal feelings about the 9/11 attacks from his unique perspective. I've pulled some excerpts from it below:

The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city... I believe we were looking at NY around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. How horrible!

It was pretty difficult to think about work after that, though we had some to do... It all looked incredible from two to three hundred miles away. I can't imagine the tragic scenes on the ground.

And tears don't flow the same in space... 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.

It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. 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.

I hope the example of cooperation and trust that this spacecraft and all the people in the program demonstrate daily will someday inspire the rest of the world to work the same way. They must! Life goes on, even in space.

--Frank Culbertson (September 2001)

Several themes emerge here. First, here was a Navy Captain witnessing his country being attacked, and there was nothing he could do about it. Moreover, he was an astronaut on the most remote outpost mankind has ever constructed. His feelings of isolation are perfectly natural and understandable. Second, life has to go on. The ISS needs its crew to keep functioning, and there is work to be done, just as there is back on Earth. Third, the multinational collaboration in the space program can serve as a model for how we can all put aside our differences and work together for a greater purpose. That is a powerful message.

The crews of Expedition 3, Expedition 4, and STS-108 gathered in the ISS Destiny Module on December 9, 2001 to commemorate 9/11. The Shuttle carried more than 6000 American flags, which were later distributed to families of victims of 9/11. An actual flag that had flown on the World Trade Center also rode on the flight as a symbol of the enduring American spirit. Astronaut Culbertson's remarks begin at around 3-minute mark in the video below:

Culbertson retired from NASA in 2002 and currently serves as senior vice president of Orbital Sciences Corporation, where he is responsible for the company's human space flight programs. He has recently given a number of interviews reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, including feature articles at Yahoo! News and (both well worth reading), a radio interview at America's Radio News Network, as well as NASA's September 11 video:

I'll leave you with Frank Culbertson's wise words of caution about how we should use the tragedy as an opportunity for societal growth rather than an excuse for the converse:

I think it's important for people to continue to learn the lessons from this and make sure we are in fact making ourselves a better country as a result of it and not regressing or turning inward into a society we won't be proud to pass on to our children or grandchildren. --Frank Culbertson (September 2011)


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