Astronaut Frank Culbertson On 9/11

The following is a letter composed by Captain Frank Culbertson (retired), the Expedition Three Commander who was aboard the ISS on 9/11 and saw the carnage from a unique vantage point – from space! Having bared witness to one of the most auspicious and terrible events in the history of his country, he composed a latter describing what it was like on the day of and during the days that followed. He was unable to get back home in the wake of the attack, and therefore had to continue to watch from orbit as he and his crew – much like the people of Earth – carried on as best they could.

The full transcript appears below, and thanks to Dr. Sci-Fi for turning me on to it. I especially enjoyed your 9/11 post. It was good to hear from someone else as they described what they were doing on that fateful day.

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.

Next day….

I guess the fatigue and emotional strain got the best of me. I couldn’t stay awake and continue to write. Today was still difficult, but we started getting more information, plus we had the honor of talking directly with the Center Director, Roy Estess, who assured us that the ground teams would continue to work and ensure our safety, as well as the safe operation of the Station. We also heard from our Administrator, Mr. Goldin, who added that the partners in the Program are all totally committed to continuing safe operations and support. These were never questions for me. I know all these people! The ground teams have been incredibly supportive, very understanding of the impact of the news, and have tried to be as helpful as possible. They have all been very professional and focused though I can’t imagine the distraction of this type of news coming in and the thought that government buildings might be at risk. They never skipped a beat, even when relocating control centers. And a group of senior personnel and friends gave us a pretty thorough briefing on what was known and what was being done in the government and at NASA on Tuesday afternoon, which was very helpful and kind of them to do in the midst of all the turmoil. The Russian TsUP has also been supportive and helpful, trying to uplink news articles when our own assets were inoperable, and saying kind words…

My crewmates have been great, too. They know it’s been a tough day for me and the folks on the ground, and they’ve tried to be as even keeled and helpful as possible. Michael even fixed me my favorite Borscht soup for dinner. And they give me plenty of room to think when I needed it. They are very sympathetic and of course outraged at whoever would do this.

I know so many people in Washington, so many people who travel to DC and NYC, so many who are pilots, that I felt sure I would receive at least a few pieces of bad news over the next few days. I got the first one today when I learned that the Captain of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon was Chic Burlingame, a classmate of mine. I met Chic during plebe summer when we were in the D&B together, and we had lots of classes together. I can’t imagine what he must of gone through, and now I hear that he may have risen further than we can even think of by possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. What a terrible loss, but I’m sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. 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. I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world. Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately.

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 have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done. I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much. I can’t be there with you in person, and we have a long way to go to complete our mission, but be certain that my heart is with you, and know you are in my prayers.


September 14, 2001; 22:49

An update to the last letter… Fortunately, it’s been a busy week up here. And to prove that, like our country, we are continuing on our intended path with business as usual (as much as possible). Tonight the latest addition to the station, the Russian Docking Compartment will be launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. On Saturday night (US time), it will dock with us, at a port never used before on the nadir side of the Service Module. This new module will give us another place to dock a Progress or Soyuz and will provide a large airlock with two useable hatches for conducting EVA’s in Russian Orlan suits, which we will do a few of before we come home.

The problem before in dealing with this week was too little news. The problem now is too much. It came all at once when email was restored, and there’s not enough time to read it all! Plus it’s too hard to deal with all of it at once. But I appreciate getting it, and I really appreciate the great letters of support and friendship I am receiving.

We are doing well on board, getting our work done, and talking about things. Last night we had a long discussion over dinner about the significance of these events, the possible actions to follow, and what should be done. After dinner, Michael made a point of telling me that every email he received from friends in Russia said specifically to tell me how sorry they were that this happened, extending their condolences, and asking how I was doing. Vladimir taught me the Russian word for “condolences” after talking to the previous CDR, Yuri Usachev, on the phone in Star City. (Both the Russian and the English words are much too long to pronounce easily.) Very kind people.

For the last two days, the Russian MCC has been good enough to transmit live broadcasts of radio news about the event and associated stories, to make sure I was well informed. Every specialist who has come on the line to discuss a procedure or a problem has at some point extended greetings to me with kind words. Tonight the Russian capcom told us that because of the special day of remembrance in the US, all day people had been bringing flowers and lining all the walls of the US embassy in Moscow, and this evening they were lighting candles in the street outside the embassy. How the world has changed.

People everywhere seem to recognize the senselessness and horror in this attack. And the tremendous loss. Moscow has dealt with these kind of problems in the last few years with apartment and subway bombings, so they are as anxious to get rid of this threat as we are. But the bottom line is that there are good people everywhere who want to live in peace. I read that a child asked, “America is so good to other countries, we always help everyone, how can they hate us so much?”

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!

Unfortunately, we won’t be flying over the US during the time people are lighting candles. Don’t know if we could see that anyway. We did, however, see a very unusual and beautiful sight a few minutes ago: the launch of our Docking Compartment on a Soyuz booster. We were overtaking it and it came into view about three minutes after its launch from Baikonur as the sun hit our station, so it was still in the dark. It looked like a large comet with a straight, wide tail silhouetted against the dark planet beneath. Despite some bad lighting for a while as the sun hit our window at a low angle, I managed some video of it as first we passed the rocket, and then watched it begin to catch up as it gained altitude and speed. I filmed until main engine cutoff and booster separation occurred just as we approached sunrise on the Himalayas. An unforgettable sight in an unforgettable week…

Life goes on, even in space. We’re here to stay…

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