What 9/11 Looked Like to the Only American Who Wasn't on Earth to See It

Source: NASA
Source: NASA

NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was 220 miles above the Earth on Sept. 11, 2001. A former U.S. Navy captain, he was the commander of the Expedition 3 mission aboard the International Space Station. His Russian crewmates, Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, were his only companions, which meant he was the only American 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," Culbertson wrote in a letter published the day after 9/11. "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." 

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

Culbertson sign-off is heartbreaking: "I miss all of you very much."

Below are a few photos that Culbertson and the crew — and other satellites in orbit — captured on the day of the attacks: 

One of a series of photos taken of metropolitan New York City by the International Space Station's Expedition 3 crew that shows the smoke plume rising from Manhattan.
Source: 
NASA
SPOT satellite image of Manhattan, acquired on September 11 at 11:55 AM EST, 3 hours after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. The colors result from the use of infrared bands to identify the actual fire hot spots (see red spots near the base of the smoke plume).
Source: 
NCNES
One of a series of pictures of metropolitan New York City taken by one of the Expedition Three crew members onboard the International Space Station (ISS) at various times during the day on September 11, 2001.
Source: 
NASA
This one-meter resolution satellite image of Manhattan, New York was collected at 11:43 a.m. EDT on Sept. 12, 2001, by Space Imaging's IKONOS satellite. The image shows an area of white dust and smoke at the location where the 1,350-foot towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
Source: 
GeoEye
Space Imaging's IKONOS satellite collected this image of Manhattan, New York at 11:54 a.m. EDT on Sept. 15, 2001. The image shows the remains of the 1,350-foot towers of the World Trade Center, and the debris and dust that settled throughout the area. Also visible are many emergency and rescue vehicles in the streets.
Source: 
GeoEye
NASA's Terra Satellite True-Color Image, taken Sept. 12, 2001 by the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard NASA's Terra Satellite.
Source: 
NASA
Space Imaging's IKONOS satellite collected this image of Manhattan, New York at 11:54 a.m. EDT on Sept. 15, 2001. The image shows the remains of the 1,350-foot towers of the World Trade Center, and the debris and dust that settled throughout the area
Source: 
GeoEye
vThis one-meter resolution photo of Manhattan, New York was collected at 11:43 a.m. EDT on Sept. 12, 2001 by Space Imaging's IKONOS satellite. The image shows an area of white dust and smoke at the location where the 1,350-foot towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
Source: 
GeoEye

Image Credits: NASA, GeoEye, CNES/SPOT via space.com

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Sophie Kleeman

Sophie is a staff writer at Mic covering the intersection of tech and culture. She's based in New York and can be reached at sophie@mic.com.

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