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Astronaut Frank Culberston recalls watching 9/11 unfold from space

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American astronaut Frank Culbertson Jr. was the only American not on planet Earth during the events of Sept. 11, 2001. As he watched a massive pillar of smoke grow in size and spread from Manhattan and into the Atlantic Ocean from aboard the International Space Station, Culbertson had even less information than most on that chaotic and tragic day, with no access to television or other sources of news. 

Culbertson tells about experiencing the events of 9/11 from orbit in a new video titled "9/11 A Perspective From Space," recently posted to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's YouTube channel. The video includes footage captured from space of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

He recalls first receiving word that something was wrong on that morning, when he called down to the ground and asked how it was going.

"Frank, we're not having a very good day down here on Earth," his flight surgeon told Culbertson. He described to Culberston the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crashing of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. 

"They told us all they could, which wasn't very much," Culberston says in the video. Because of the lack of live television or Internet access, Culberston was largely in the dark. After learning the news, he noticed the space station would soon be passing over New England. He quickly found a camera, set it up, and he couldn't believe what he saw. 

"I could clearly see the city, it was a perfect weather day all over the United States," he says. "The only activity I could see was this big black column of smoke coming out over New York City, out over Long Island and over the Atlantic."

He also describes seeing a "big gray blob." What Culberston was witnessing from space was the second World Trade Center Tower collapsing, though he didn't know it at the time.

"I just assumed it was more explosions," he says. "I assumed tens of thousands of people were being hurt or killed." Concerned for the safety of his family, he scanned the rest of the country for any signs of smoke and thankfully found none.

Culberston continued taking footage of the day's events from space. On Sept. 12, news didn't improve. Culberston learned a friend of his from the U.S. Naval Academy, Charles "Chic" Burlingame, had been the captain of American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.

As a tribute to his fallen friend, Culberston, who brought his trumpet to space, recording a video of himself playing taps. That video was played for Burlingame's family and friends at Culberston's U.S. Naval Academy Class reunion. 

Photo: NASA 

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